Hartmann Concerto Marks Central Event in 20th Century History

United KingdomUnited Kingdom J S Bach, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Beethoven: Leonidas Kavakos (violin). London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 22.1.2014

J S Bach: Violin Concerto No1 in A minor, BWV 1041
Karl Amadeus Hartmann: Concerto funebre, for violin and string orchestra
Beethoven:  Symphony No 3 in E flat major (Eroica)

Just before the concert started there was an announcement that both conductor and soloist had decided to dedicate the concert to the late Claudio Abbado. I would imagine that many concerts around the world are this week being dedicated the Italian maestro who died earlier this week.  But this concert had a special relevance for Abbado’s passing. I  know that Abbado did conduct some Hartmann, but I am not sure that he ever conducted the Concerto funebre. But the tone of funerals in the Concerto, and the great Marcia funebre in the Eroica had a special significance tonight. It says a lot for Jurowski, and Kavakos that they played a work by Hartmann, whose music is hardly ever played in London.

 It is hoped that conductors like Jurowski will also play some of Hartmann’s marvellous symphonic output. It is in many ways quite surprising that he is not played more often, since a central theme of resistance in his work (including the Concerto funebre) is the tragedy and horror of Hitler’s take over of power in 1933. this is a central event in modern European history, causing levels of death and destruction on an unprecedented scale. But perhaps this is the reason he is not much played today. Many do not want to linger on Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust; history must move on. But Hartmann would argue (probably in Hegelian terms)  that history is not necessarily progressive, history repeats itself in sometimes uncanny ways – and with even more catastrophic outcomes! This work written in 1939 is a response to the annexation by the Nazis of the then Czechoslovakia. This turned out to be a particularly brutal takeover under Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich – even by Nazi standards.

 Tonight both soloist and conductor had a complete understanding of the interrelated four movements, which play without a break. In the introductory movement after the soloist intones the Hussite chorale ‘You who are God’s warriors’ – a direct reference to Czechoslovakia – was perfectly contrasted with the brief descending chromatic string phrase. The relative serenity and simplicity of the brief opening movement is in sharp contrast to the following highly emotional Adagio. Again soloist and conductor were in complete dialogue: the soloist’s unfolding of a lament climaxing in an outcry in the highest reaches of the violin’s register, and the beautifully paced,  highly chromatic textures in the strings with the dotted rhythms taking on a slow march tone. Kavakos’ tonal range from the sotto voce of the lament to the strident outcry was truly outstanding. The Allegro di moto Third Movement, a frenetic highly charged scherzo, a kind of danse macabre  dominated by Bartokian hammering quaver rhythms, was dramatic with plenty of dynamic frisson, without ever sounding virtuoso for the sake of being virtuoso. The rapid alternations of arco and pizzicato for both soloist and orchestra were compellingly matched, as were the final  movements unfolding in a series of serene responses between strings and soloist.  Jurowski achieved some beautifully veiled string tone especially in the Russian song ‘You fell in battle’, later used by Shostakovich in his 11th Symphony and here taking a chorale tone.  The coda theme, with reminiscences of the adagio theme, seems to fade away into silence only to be interrupted by a sudden loud closing dissonance. This was immaculately achieved in both dynamic and emotional terms.

 Jurowski deployed a large compliment of strings for the Eroica Symphony with eight double basses lined up behind the orchestra. But overall he aimed for a quite light but agile string tone. In a sense this performance was a combination of old and new practices in orchestral performance. But sometimes I had the impression that Jurowski had not thought this through sufficiently. I remember hearing a marvellously engaging and dynamic Eroica at a Prom recently with David Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra. Zinman used a scaled down modern orchestra but deployed a ‘period’ playing style, with a minimum of vibrato, cutting brass, timps and woodwind and swiftish tempi. But tonight the only concesssions to ‘period’ style performances were valve-less trumpets and what looked like ‘period’ timpani. The problem here was that with such large complement of strings the higher tone of the timpani, even with hard sticks meant a certain percussive thrust and weight was often lost. Surely it would have better if Jurowski  had deployed modern timpani played at different dynamic levels and cutting through the texture especially at cardinal moments, with equally toned up trumpets. Also there were at least two crucial places where Jurowski introduced several levels of slowing down sounding more like a Furtwangler or a Mengelberg!

After setting a real opening Allegro con brio Jurowski contoured the exposition well with a real sense of rhythmic balance and contrasting dynamics. With the added clarity of divisi violins. He managed the E flat twist at the start of the development section well but as it advanced into more remote tonal registers,  Tovey’s ‘clash of shadowy harmonies’, a distinct decline in structural suspense was apparent, not helped at the height of the development climax by the introduction of a ritardando (poco rit), sounding completely out of place. Also Jurowski’s occasional attention to woodwind and horn detail detracted from that crucial sense of symphonic line and coherence. And although the coda was well contoured Jurowski underplayed the all important gradual crescendo triplet figure in brass and timpani which initiate the coda proper.

As is customary today the great C minor Marcia funebre was taken at a measured ‘andante’ pace, ensuring plenty of ‘movement’ . Although the tempo is marked ‘Adagio assai’ today strict adherence to the composer’s metronome marks has fashioned a norm. Jurowski took great care in the balance and phrasing of the opening and continuing appoggiatura in the basses, so cohering with the other 32 notes in the bass. But although this care over detail was admirable I felt at times, as already mentioned, that it detracted from the overall line. How in line and natural it sounded when Klemperer conducted the Marcia funebre.  The great C minor double fugue that initiates the second episode lacked the the terrifying ‘Aeschylean’ drama, to borrow a term from Weingartner. A drama and gravitas certainly realised when Toscanini. Klemperer, and indeed Weingartner himself conducted it. The four in a note timpani figure which initiates the march’s fragmented coda lacked rhythmic rigour and dynamic frisson.

The concluding scherzo and finale mostly came off well, with plenty of ‘brio’. The horns in the trio of the scherzo sounded suitably bucolic, anticipating Der Freischutz.. The big peroration of the finale’s Promethean theme was impressive, although here there was a slight sag in tension. Just before the peroration Beethoven includes a slower variation intoned in the bass register in a rich and sonorous E flat major. Here echoes of the Marcia funebre are discernible in disintegrated form. As mentioned above here Jurowski  introduced a large rallentando, completely out of kilter with the swift tempo he adopted for the rest of the movement. It was as though the whole performance had lapsed back into a previous era were this kind of rubato was the norm. And it could sound wonderful with a conductor like Furtwangler, but not here.  In contrast to this Jurowski did not whip up the blazing E flat major coda which was impressive and well articulated. But it lacked the last ounce  of fire, jubilation and energy heard in the greatest performances of this master-work.

 The concert had opened with the Bach’s A minor Violin Concerto. As the programme note tells us Bach first performed the concerto in 1717 in Cöthen with 17 players led by the soloist. Tonight Jurowski deployed about the same number of string players. But from the opening there was a distinct lack of the dance like thrust and buoyant rhythm which so characterises Bach’s music. Everything was played but it all sounded so tame. This lack made me feel quite thankful of the best in period performance of Bach and other Baroque composers.  Playing Bach on modern strings does not necessarily have to sound as perfunctory as this! Kavakos played well, especially in the reflective andante, but in the Allegro assai finale, there was none of the freshness the likes of Manze and Standage bring. This was not helped by a plodding bass line especially in the finale. Jurowski directed from the harpsichord, but I had extreme difficulty hearing his continuo contributions. But this may have been in part to do with acoustical limitations of the Festival Hall?

 Geoff Diggines.