An Interesting Schoenberg-Brahms Evening with the Vienna Phil

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schoenberg, Brahms: Yefim Bronfman (piano), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 9.4.2013 (GD)

Schoenberg: Theme and Variations arr. for orchestra
Brahms: Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat, Op 83
Brahms: Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor, Op.25 (orchestrated by Schoenberg).

Any concert with the Vienna Philharmonic is worth attending if you can get tickets! And tonight in a most interesting programme it was the VPO that came over as real stars with their shimmering strings, alluring woodwind and and fantastic brass section, – a section, along with the orchestra as a whole, which can produce an amazing range in terms of timbre and dynamics. And all this despite some excellent conducting from Michael Tilson Thomas, who led in terms of tempi and phrasing, but never (wisely) attempted to re-adjust the great orchestra’s overall unique sound.

I can’t understand why Schoenberg’s late Theme and Variations, Op.43b is not played more often. It is not a twelve tone work and, as MTT contended in a brief pre-performance talk it sounds like a work where Schubert meets Kurt Weill! I can see his point. It was premiered in 1944 in Boston with Koussevitsky conducting. It is interesting to note that Schoenberg in a letter to Fritz Reiner in 1944 expressed great satisfaction with the composition, finding it ‘original’ and ‘inspired’. And Schoenberg was certainly not usually given to such self-praise. He had originally composed it for wind band a year before his arrangement for full symphony orchestra, which we heard tonight. The work consists a theme with seven variations. In terms of its ‘Viennese’ inflections, with a lilting waltz and quasi cabaret-like tones, the VPO were predictably ‘hors concours’. Those introductory droll brass tones in the lower register were truly ravishing in a rather gauche manner. Schoenberg brilliantly juxtaposes these ‘lighter’ elements with some virtuoso fugal elements, rounding its eleven minute duration with a brilliant (almost mock brilliant) and imposing coda. It is a composition that would not benefit from too much conductorial intervention, and tonight it seemed to play itself, MTT confining himself to the functions of basic tempo indications and transition articulation.

I was immediately captivated by the glorious horn dialogue which opens Brahms’ most expansive concerto. But despite superb playing throughout I had the overall impression that this performance registered more in the melodious and glowing Andante and the lighter lyrical finale. Everything was superbly balanced and contoured in the majestic first movement and the following stormy second movement, but in these movements I missed a certain rhythmic thrust. This was immediately apparent in the majestic cadence theme for full orchestra which follows the opening horn dialogue. And throughout the vast first movement I had a similar impression of dramatic restraint. This was particularly apparent in the complex and extended development section, beginning in B minor with rich modulations and spiralling cross-rhythms played out between piano and orchestra. Similarly the second movement, which although shorter, is no less powerful than the first movement, lacked a certain rhythmic/dynamic charge, despite superb orchestral playing. And at the climactic close of the development section with its brilliant contrapuntal cadences and juxtapositions between major and minor MTT made a large ritenuto. This is certainly not included in the score and, for me, it simply sounded ponderous, holding up the full thrust of this movement.

Throughout the concerto Yefim Bronfman played well. And most of the time there was a real sense of dialogue between soloist and conductor. But I did miss the pianistic range (which is a sine qua non in this of all concertos). I know that comparisons are ‘odious’ but the fantastic range and tonal complexity and projection realised with pianists like Gilels, Richter, Pollini, and Curzon, kept coming to mind. But in his own terms Bronfman turned in a good professional rendition. He was at his best in the andante, with its dynamic challenges contrasted with delicate eloquence and subtle ornamentation. The mid-movement sequence of agitation (breaking the overall tone of glowing lyricism) was notable, not so much for its panglossian pianistic range, but more for the way Bronfman played in admirable dialogue with the orchestra with its impassioned and alternating ascending/descending cascades and final resolution in F sharp major, working towards the home tonic of the movement’s finale with piano accompanied by a beautifully autumnal flute dialogue, and a return of the enchanting solo cello theme which opened the movement. Ideally I would have preferred this andante to have more of a sense of movement, as is implied in the ‘andante’ marking; at times it sounded more like an adagio. But perhaps this criticism is a shade churlish given the wonderful orchestral/pianistic glow achieved.

Both pianist and conductor brought out all the energy and grace of the finale. It is possibly Brahms’s most Mozartian composition in its economy, delicacy and gentle humour. The six basic themes were all articulated with a brilliance and lightness rarely heard. Again the VPO’s strings and woodwind (no trumpets and drums in this movement) worked wonders of detail and subtle interplay with each other and the soloist. Again Bronfman’s sense of rapport and dialogue with the superb orchestra was admirable.

It was the conductor Otto Klemperer who invited Schoenberg to make an orchestral transcription of the Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor, Op.25 to be included in his 1937-8 season in Los Angeles as part of a planned Brahms cycle. Initially Schoenberg was enthusiastic – he had admired Brahms from an early age – and completed the score later in 1937. He liked to refer to it as “Brahms’ Fifth Symphony”. Klemperer eventually gave the first performance in Los Angeles in May 1938, but only after Schoenberg had unsuccessfully offered the premiere to a more prestigious American orchestra for a higher fee.

Although Schoenberg changed none of the notes of Brahms’s original score, he introduced a style of chromatic writing, especially in the brass, Brahms would not have deployed. The vivid and colourful writing in Schoenberg’s version of the fourth and last movement includes some decidedly un-Brahmsian parts for xylophone, glockenspiel and cymbals, as well as trombone glissandos and brass double-tonguing. All this has been criticised but overall Schoenberg’s arrangement makes a compelling case for the symphonic quality of Brahms’s original work.

MTT and the VPO also made an excellent case for the work’s status tonight. It is something of an MTT speciality, and this identification with the score certainly came over. It was a big, lavish performance again with superb playing from the opulent-toned VPO. The first movement had tremendous sweep and weight, the mood of D major ringing out triumphantly after the G minor opening. The intermezzo second movement had a charming lilt and rhythmic buoyancy. And the Andante con moto third movement was notable for its broad lyricism and grandeur. I would have ideally preferred a swifter tempo here, as indicated in the tempo marking, but this was so ravishing and enjoyable that I almost forgot such matters. MTT relished the colour and sparkle of the fourth and last movement with its Gypsy style three-bar phrases and folk dance processions. Indeed he emphasised all the ‘excesses’, especially in the percussion, that purists have criticised. The brisk gaiety and whirling cross-rhythms of the coda was both exciting and exhilarating.

Ultimately I prefer Brahms’s original Piano Quartet, But Schoenberg’s arrangement, especially in such a rousing performance, I found hugely enjoyable. It also told me more about the compositional techniques and styles of both composers.

As an encore MTT and the orchestra gave us a rousing, but well structured rendition of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No.1 in G minor, which the composer arranged from his piano duet version.

Geoff Diggines.