A Mozart Bruckner Concert with a ‘Special’ Quality

GermanyGermany Mozart, Bruckner: Lise de la Salle (piano), London Symphony Orchestra / Fabio Luisi (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 19.6.2014 (GD)

Mozart: Piano Concerto in A major, No. 23 K488
Bruckner: Symphony No. 8 in C minor


One could say that all of Mozart’s concerti respond well to ‘period’ performance. But K488 is perhaps a special candidate here. The concerto has suffered more from all kinds of mannerisms and distortions mostly emanating from the 19th century. One particular misconception was to cast a veil, a kind of transcendental aura around the concerto. Amazingly this still persists today. A very recent recording from a very distinguished pianist directing from the keyboard, subsumed the whole concerto into a kind of dreamy haze of ersatz ‘beauty’. Also the concerto is often played too slowly, almost dragging. The second, ‘slow movement’ often taken at a ludicrously slow tempo. Part of the reason for this is that the movement is marked ‘Adagio’. Now there is some controversy here. Earlier editions gave the tempo marking as ‘Andante’. But now textual ‘authenticity tells us that the correct tempo should be ‘Adagio’. If this is indeed the case, it is the only ‘Adagio’ marking in all of Mozart’s piano concerti. It does  seem strange that Mozart would confine an adagio marking to this concerto? But I have noticed that other recent ‘period’ performance recordings have reverted to the ‘Andante’ marking.  Of course an excellent Mozartian like Clara Haskil, Annie Fischer, Richard Goode, Pollini and tonight’s Lise de la Salle will acknowledge the gravitas needed needed to savour the emotional pathos of this music without sacrificing the ongoing flow by taking a too portentious tempo. In other words, all these, and other pianists, will know that even if the correct tempo is ‘Adagio’, a Mozart adagio is not like an adagio by Brahms.

I have heard Lise de la Salle on two occasions in Mozart: a performance in London with Charles Mackerras conducting, another in Brussels with Phillipe Herreweghe. Both were of the great D minor concerto K 466, and both performances were superb, as was tonight’s rendition.  De la Salle is a pianist who projects a wonderful sense of freedom, drama and elegance, whilst at the same time crucially incorporating the basic structural cohesion of the work. I am pleased to note that Fabio Luisi proved to be an excellent accompanist to la Salle; there was a real sense of rapport and dialogue. To take just one example, from the ‘Allegro’ first movement, with the perky dotted-note rhythms of the second subject. Here one could hear quite clearly the interplay between soloist and woodwinds and strings, all most delicately balanced. The second movement is in F sharp minor; the only other F sharp minor work as far as I know being the early Piano Sonata, K 280. Both soloist and conductor perfectly delineated the lilting ‘siciliano rhythm throughout.  Even the juxtapositions into a more major key ( A major) lightness, are subtended by darker harmonic registers, reminding one of Donna Elvira’s simple affection being pulled back into the profane power of Don Giovanni.

De la Salle demonstrated her ability to really make the contrasts in the chromatic suspensions and unexpected harmonies tell. Her lead back to the tonic of A major in the coda was a model of the most subtle realisation of poetic transition with that wonderful sense of closure in the clarinet part. She launched into the rondo finale with the greatest agility and rhythmic buoyancy, sounding like a scene from opera buffa. Of course Mozart was working on ‘Figaro’ at the time. Again she was particularly brilliant in her inflections, denoting the sharp contrasts between D majo and F sharp minor in the middle section. Luisi wisely deployed antiphonal violins. Overall the LSO played remarkably well, especially the woodwinds. On occasion, the strings failed to deliver certain delicate figurations with quite the accuracy and finesse of the best ‘period’ ensembles.

This superb rendition of a great Mozart Piano Concerto in itself gave the concert a special  quality.  This ‘special’ quality carried over into the concluding work; a complete performance of the 1887 edition of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. It was special in that it is very seldom played in concert; also Luisi’s rendition was special in its complete identification and belief in this edition. Tonight’s programme note writer Stephen Johnson asked, ‘Should we regard this simply as a flawed first attempt, or as another, equally valid ‘take’ on the musical material and the vision it strives to express?’ Wisely Johnson leaves the question open, although, through the empathy with the work revealed in his writing, I think I can guess his position in the matter. Anyone who listens to the whole of the 1887 edition will recognise the basic contour of the the superb editions by Novakand Haas, which are generally performed/recorded. But as Johnson implies, there a very different ‘feel’ to the 1887 version. Johnson describes it well when he writes of it being ‘less refined’, ‘more rough-edged’; but there is another quality, or ‘deficiency’ (obviously for the intended first conductor Hermann Levi) to do with its myriad long and obsessive repetitions.  I am thinking particularly of the ostinato crescendo figure in the bass register leading up to the ‘massive fff apotheosis’ of the initial theme in the fff coda of the first movement, in contrast to the repeated pp figure which ends the more familiar edited versions. Many writers on Bruckner, including the composer himself, have spoken this music in terms of ‘The Annunciation of death’, and other musical connotations of death, mortality. We also know that Bruckner himself was obsessed with rituals of counting, today referred to as ‘Obsessive Compulsive Behaviour’, linked to various forms of autism. It would be interesting to explore these formations of repetition from a Freudian perspective, not just as a characteristic of Bruckner’s behaviour, but as something redolent of mortality intrinsic to the music. In Freud’s essays and commentaries on the ‘Death Instinct’ he makes numerous references to repetitions in everyday behaviour and in life formation patterns. Freud used the term ‘unheimlich’ (uncanny in English) but having a more complex register in the German. And many of these repetitions have a distinctly ‘unheimlich’ tonality. The great Bruckner conductor Georg Tintner compared this first version with Beethoven’s Fidelio and its differences to the first version of the opera known as ‘Leonore’. Both final versions have distinct improvements. But, as Tintner notes, both earlier versions have beautiful sequences cut in the final versions. In terms more of texture and sound one could also make comparisons with Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Rimsky Korsakov’s re-orchestrations are more brilliant and colourful, but Mussorgsky’s own more grainy, raw orchestrations resonate more with the dramatic/tragic nature of the opera’s themes.

As I said Luisi showed complete empathy with the 1887 version. The ‘Adagio’, just over thirty minutes tonight, did nor drag or sag, Luisi mainaining the basic ‘Tristanesque’ pulse throughout. I was held throughout the whole vast movement, indeed the whole symphony. The ‘Scherzo’, again longer through its repetition of themes than the standard editions, came over as having a kind of rocky grandeur, Luisi inflecting the basic rhythmic structure of the movement. The trio here is shorter with no harps, but Luisi made it cohere wonderfully with the main scherzo themes. The C major climax in the ‘Adagio’, as opposed to the E flat major in the 1890 score, made its dramatic/noble effect, although in the later Novak/Hass editions the climax is better timed, unleashing more power. Also the multiple cymbal crashes are less effective than the later  clashes confined to the climax’s modal points. The 1887 finale has more in common with the later revised versions. The great fff ostinato sequence before the extended development section, with its rather sentimental little solo violin tale-off – actually  almost exactly the same as in the Haas edition – was impressive, although I much prefer the Nowak edition here with its solo timpani decrescendo tail off, sounding distinctly ‘modern’. I didn’t find the sudden diminuendo (decrescendo-crescendo) at the start of the great peroration coda as convincing as some commentators, including Tintner. But what finally made this performance so compelling and exceptional was Luisi’s masterful conducting projecting a real belief and commitment to the the importance of this ‘original’ version. And apart from a few woodwind/horn fluffs, the LSO responded excellently.  I would not say that the 1887 in any way supersedes the later Nowak and Haas editions, which are definitely definitely more economic, consistent and well structured, but don’t think any Brucknerian should be without the earlier version. It is a wonderful voyage of discovery to compare the 1887 version with later versions, and find the amazing differences and similarities. It is hoped that Luisi will record the 1887 version soon.

Geoff Diggines.

3 thoughts on “A Mozart Bruckner Concert with a ‘Special’ Quality”

  1. There were no antiphonal violins in this concert or in the one Luisi conducted on Sunday. The violas were positioned on the conductor’s immediate right.

    • pianoronald is quite right. K 280 is in f minor, not f sharp minor. I was erely making an analogy between the two works in the sense of their poignancy of expession; also the use of Sicilianas in the two works opening themes. I should have made this more clear. But sometimes going into too much compositional detail in an already quite long review can come across as tedious for the reader.


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