Haydn More Compelling than Bruckner in Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s Concert

Haydn and Bruckner: Truls Mørk (cello), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 4.4.2014 (MB)

Haydn – Cello Concerto in C major, Hob.VIIb/1
Bruckner – Symphony no.7 in E major


It was the Haydn C major Concerto, which, despite the massed ranks of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Bruckner symphony and the radically smaller ensemble deployed before the interval, received the more compelling performance in this, the second of three Concertgebouw concerto-and-Bruckner programmes. There were occasional slight irritations to be endured in the orchestral performance: a little more string vibrato and longer bows would sometimes have been desirable (too much time with Nikolaus Harnoncourt?), and the odd tapering-off at the end of phrases edged towards mannerism. In the present climate, however, such shortcomings could readily be coped with; moreover, there was nothing whatsoever about which one might complain with respect to Truls Mørk’s performance. The first movement in his hands was naturally phrased, taken at a sensible tempo; every line was shaped so beautifully that it did not sound ‘shaped’ at all, art concealing art. Inflections were meaningful, never unduly emphatic.

 Mariss Jansons was a sensitive ‘accompanist’, though sometimes one might have wished for a little more than that. (Think of Britten for Rostropovich in this concerto.) What I suppose one might call ‘period’ tendencies – though they have nothing to do with the eighteenth century, and everything to do with latter-day puritanism – were a little more marked in the slow movement: in the orchestra, that is, for there was no sign of such influence in Mørk’s performance. That tapering off of phrases detracted from the overall line, and left for some peculiar near-silences. Again, one hears far worse, but it seemed a pity. There was certainly a great contrast with the richness of solo cello tone, and also with the generally aristocratic tenor of Mørk’s account: clearly from the heart, without a hint of undue emoting. The finale proved an unalloyed delight: dashing without descending into a mere dash. Darker currents – almost proto-Mozartian – were not absent, but nor were they exaggerated. It was a true delight to see and to hear Mørk respond so vividly to the first violins. Best of all, this really had the character of a finale. The Sarabande from Bach’s D minor Cello Suite made for a rapt encore, the single line so all-encompassing, so brimming with perfectly-judged harmonic implication, that it would have been worth attending for that alone.

 Sad to say, Jansons’s performance of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony disappointed – and the orchestra was on less than top form too. (Much of the audience seemed to disagree.) There were passages when the Concertegbouw Orchestra sounded gorgeous, but others when string tone was decidedly anonymous; maybe the trials of touring have proved too much. At the beginning of the first movement, there was certainly a warm, febrile sound, but neither the orchestra nor, more noticeably, Jansons’s direction seemed quite able to settle. Moreover, here and elsewhere, the brass blared, rather than blended; this was overpowering in a most unfortunate sense: more a caricature of, say, Chicago, than what one expected from Bernard Haitink’s old orchestra. There was ultimately too much stopping and starting; though not, I suspect, slow by the clock, the music felt drawn out. One longed for Furtwängler – or indeed, Karajan. The slow movement was much the same. Later on, there was a greater sense of inevitability, but much of the movement’s progression had little sense of overall line. There was a cymbal clash, for those who care about such things; my sense was that that climax was very well-prepared and well-executed. It was a pity, that one could not say the same of everything else.

 The scherzo was better. If it still lacked the dramatic and spiritual tension of a great performance, then it cohered, making musical sense. Once again, though, the brass proved too much: straightforwardly too loud at times, but also lacking in blend. The trio, alas, was too relaxed, almost somnolent at times. It was not so much a matter of speed as such as of lack of tension. Jansons’s rubato, moreover, sounded merely arbitrary. The return to the scherzo came as a relief in quite the wrong sense. And it was difficult not to ask oneself: what does this mean, what is at stake? In some senses the finale, that most incongruous of movements (whatever was Bruckner thinking of, placing it there?)  came off best. I have heard performances with a better sense of line, but there was at least an impression of thematic blocks in friction that was generative rather than a non sequitur. There were a few cases of conductor’s moulding which would have been better left undone, but there was on the whole a greater sense of forward thrust. Alas, it was rather too late for the symphony to emerge as more than the sum of its parts.

Mark Berry

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