United Kingdom Mozart, R Strauss, Bach: Emanuel Ax (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / David Zinman (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London. 19.3.2014 (GD)
Mozart: Symphony No, 38 in D major K 504 (Prague)
J S Bach: Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, BWV 1052
R Strauss: Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration)
Quite recently I have reviewed a number of concerts notable for the imagination of their programming – the way in which each work has some link with the other works programmed. Sometimes the link denotes the composer’s nationality: for example, all the works come from Eastern European backgrounds. Or it could be that each work has a musical link: compositions with linking tonalities or orchestration. But tonight there didn’t seem to be any discernible link – just two supreme masterpieces from the baroque and classical periods coupled with works by Richard Strauss. It’s a bit like coupling films by directors of the calibre of Renoir, Bergman and Godard, with films of Leni Riefenstahl: the former endlessly innovative and challenging, the latter full of contrived effects and hollow grandiosity.
Zinman deployed a relatively large orchestra for the ‘Prague’ Symphony. Zinman is an innovative conductor who has adapted to ‘period’ syles of performance. But tonight the only concessions he seemed to make here were to highlight trumpets and use a minimum of vibrato with relatively hard sticks on modern timpani. At times the horns seemed perculiarly repressed. Also, and surprisingly, he didn’t divide the first and second violins, a sine qua non in such a locus classicus masterpiece. In some ways Zinman conducted quite well. He realises that a Mozart ‘adagio’ is not necessarily as slow as say a Brahms ‘adagio’, so the opening ‘adagio’ had plenty of movement, was never rushed and was well sustained. It is almost certain that the intense and dark drama of this introduction (the longest symphonic introduction Mozart composed) was informed by Don Giovanni which Mozart was working on at the time (1786 actually in between Figaro and Don Giovanni) for performance in Prague. But I had little sense of dramatic expectation, contrasts and inner tensions, leading from D major to a solemn but dramatic D minor. The transition leading to the ensuing Allegro was well handled, with a real sense of allegro. But again as the allegro developed, with its wide constellation of motivic and developmental material, I missed that sense of thrust and contrast – harmonic and instrumental – so intrinsic to the contour and tone of this superb creation. The developmental potential of this music lends it an improvisatory character, but tonight everything seemed to be on the same dymanic level. This lack of thrust and dynamic/instrumental contrast was particularly apparent in the contrapuntal development section; an elaborated and augmented double-fugue. I wanted to hear more from the wonderfully opulent and complex woodwind fiugurations here;also those cutting flashes from trumpets and horns were barely audible. The wonderful recapitulation of the opening allegro sounded well, even if not having the magical tone heard in performances by Harnoncourt and earlier Klemperer. Throughout this movement, and indeed the whole symphony, there were occasional lapses in instrumental coordination, particularly in the ornamental and delicate string figurations. Also, as noted, I missed certain woodwind detail, but this could well be partly due to the acoustical limitations of the Festival Hall.
The G major Andante, with its anticipation of the mood of Don Ottavio’s famous aria ‘Della sua pace’from ‘Don Giovanni’, gained through being played at a true andante, never dragging. The shifts, and developments from major to minor were well coordinated although, again, I felt a note of blandness. I started to long for the transparency of texture and phrasing of a Peter Maag, or the attention to Mozart’s unique ‘operatic’ instrumentation revealed by the likes of Harnoncourt and René Jacobs. Again, in the Presto finale, with its swiftness, flowing motion and unencumbered grace, we hear echoes from Mozart’s operatic masterpieces, this time the whispered Duettino between Susanna and Cherubino in Act II of Figaro, (‘Aprite, presto, aprite’). Zinman shaped the basic rondo emphasis well, never dragging or ‘underlining’ a particular detail. In the chromatic exchanges between woodwind and strings, and in the brief development section, I would have welcomed more sharpness and rhythmic vivacity. Zinman was quite conventional regarding repeats: first movement exposition repeat, and the first repeats in the andante and finale.
Apart from in early works like Don Juan and Till Eulenspiegel, Strauss never seemed to re-capture the lightness and play found in the earlier Burleske for piano and orchestra (originally entitled ‘Scherzo’), the only work he composed for piano and orchestra. The work opens with four accented timpani strokes. These drum-strokes, which set the work’s dance-like tone recur and develop constantly during the 20 minute course of the work, often in amusing dialogue with the piano. Some of this is economically offset by mock serious elements and delightful waltz-like interpolations. Tonight the timpanist’s initial strokes did not seem sufficiently accented but, after a few slight rhythmic inaccuracies, the player turned in a good rendition. I am not sure why Emanuel Ax slowed down for the third lyrical section, bringing a kind of Lisztian romanticism which seemed quite alien to this playful burleske sound-scape, but overall this was good performance, even if it lacked the buoyancy and élan heard in the old Reiner recording with the Chicago Orchestra and pianist Byron Janis.
In the 30’s Sir Donald Tovey, in an extended essay on Bach’s concerti, wrote in an affirmative manner,…’no one could have written this concerto (No 1 in D minor) but Johann Sebastian Bach’. Here Tovey was not expressing any doubt about the authenticity of the work, he was making a statement about the work’s unique quality as a summation of Bach’s style and as the epitome of the Baroque concerto. In fact we know now that it was a relatively early work originally composed as a violin concerto. We also know that it was a particular favourite of Bach; he transposed some its themes, especially to Cantatas 146 and 188. We only have partial evidence that Bach ever intended it as a harpsichord concerto, but it works so well in this form. Some Bach scholars have even doubted the work’s authenticity; something which would have no doubt shocked Tovey, but there now seems little evidence for this.
Ax, as in the Strauss Buleske, tended to romanticise the piano part. This concerto, for reasons too complex to go into in a review, sounds eminently well as a harpsichord concerto. The best piano versions, for instance, those played by the likes of Andras Schiff, tone down any alien (alien for Bach) romantic rhetoric, including rubato distortions. Zinman, by contrast played the work straight. And there was, as a consequence, a basic lack of rapport and dialogue between soloist and conductor. The second movement’s series of lyrical variations came off best with Ax’s sensitive and poetic appregios over the ostinato orchestral bass. The finale was quite spirited but, as in the first movement, Ax’s ritornello runs in the extended cadenza drew more attention to the soloist than to Bach.
The strange feeling of musical dislocation in the choice of Strauss’s thickly orchestrated ‘Tod und Verklärung’ concluding the concert after one of Bach’s most wonderful concerto creations, was compounded in the work’s sotto voce opening strains by a very loud mobile alarm going off. (It might have been some other electrical digital device.) But the poor lady emanating from the choir seats couldn’t seem to work out how to switch the noise off. Zinman, wisely, stopped the orchestra until the noise was banished. After this audience incident (recorded) Zinman continued to conduct a fairly straightforward rendition of the piece.
In the introduction (probably, musically, the best thing in the work) I would have welcomed more sustained and contrasted tension. The hushed but intense tremolando in the double basses, extremely difficult to balance, seemed hardly audible. There is a problem for conductors vis a vis this work: a straightforward approach (as with tonight’s performance) can scale down some of the work’s vulgarities and excesses, but once the arbitrary/sentimental effects of the piece are minimised there is not much left in musical terms, unless the listener values loudness as a virtue in itself. Toscanini used to conduct this work frequently (probably more for the conductorial problems of orchestral balance the work presents). He brought out every orchestral strand which, with Wagner, for instance, adds tremendously to the whole ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ experience. But in Strauss it exposes the defects of his orchestration – here, some remarkably trite detail in the form of chromatic runs, which are better seen on paper than heard in practice. Not even Toscanini could make audible the extraordinarily trite detail in the depths of Strauss’s thick orchestration.
Throughout I would have welcomed more forward drive. Zinman’s reading didn’t so much drag as create a kind of static quality, which lessened any feeling of progression and expectation. The first tutti section sounded more symphonic than dramatic in relation to Strauss’s rather mawkish programme. There were a few patches of sloppy ensemble especially in the mid-section, the so-called ‘artist’s ideals’, and worldly pursuits, which includes a passionate love scene, with sentimental violin interpolations. All this is very autobiographical, and occurs with even more predictability in later works like Ein Heldenleben. The final ‘stabs of pain’ which initiate the transfiguration, followed by gong strokes, were slightly out of time, entering too early. The final climax, the ‘soul’ taking flight was broard and sonorous reaching an impressive ultimate fff without sounding merely loud. The soaring, ascending major key melody from which the climax emerges was to become one of the composer’s formulas, used in both orchestral and operatic compositions, and sounding so contrived and predictable. The climactic melody from Tod und Verklärung’was used in the 1978 film score for Superman: the Movie. Here it sounded fine, though in the concert hall after a Bach concerto masterpiece it simply sounded misplaced.