PROM 68: Lack of Intensity (and Humour) in  Brahms Performances

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 68     Brahms,  Jorg Widmann:  Joshua Smith (flute), Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Most (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 7.9.2014


Brahms:  Academic Festival Overture
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op. 68
Jorg Widmann  Flute en suite ( UK Premiere)


This was the first Prom of two by the Cleveland Orchestra and its chief conductor Franz Welser-Most, both featuring music by Brahms and Jorg Widmann. The second will include Brahms’ Second Symphony.

Brahms is often seen, or heard, as a very serious composer, but there are plenty of allusions to humour, especially in his wonderful, and still too little heard, piano music. But the Academic Festival Overture is probably his only work  in which humour is a main theme, connected to the actual title. There is even a note of comic irony as when the ‘strutting’ theme in the opening section develops a ‘mock serious’ tone. For an overture which intones student fun, swilling beer-mugs and more Welser-Most gave a very refined rendition, sounding more appropriate to a very sober and polite drink (non alcoholic) with Dr Kant in Koningsberg! I didn’t register those sudden shifts and off-beat jolts from 2/2 to 4/4, and the Fox Song, which is a send up of provincial students, initiated by bassoons, lacked any kind of swagger or earthiness. The final tutti peroration of the ‘Gaudeamus igitur’, although well balanced and proportioned  with the whole, was curiously toned-town; surely this should be played ‘full-throttle’ so to speak, with even a touch of vulgarity?

I have not previously heard any music from the composer Jorg Widmann so I came with an open mind. I was enchanted throughout Flute en Suite: the work is really a series of musical cultural contrasts between emanations from baroque dance movements and more modernist sounding invention or interventions.The eight sections are all marked as baroque dances, ‘Allemande’, Courant, etc, giving the work a distinctly post-modern feel. The flute (superbly played by Joshua Smith, who gave the premiere in Cleveland in 2011) is, in the composer’s words, the ‘provider of all impulses’. Here the flute is heard in all its registers from soft (‘dolce’), to ear shatteringly loud and even strident. I was fascinated by the myriad orchestral/instrumental interventions / accompaniments, sometimes in harmony with the various flute inventions, sometimes  going off in totally different tonal/dynamic directions with the most striking contrasts,  rapt dream-like lyricism with violent interruptions from loud off-tune brass stabs. Then, in the strings, there were strange, sometimes remote pizzicato clusters, and tremolandos with the  percussion, especially gong and cymbals, adding the most mysterious, and even exotic, intonations.   At times this filigree of deceptively delicate sound-scapes reminded me of the magic Debussy creates in his Jeux.

In keeping with humourous note intoned in the opening Brahms overture, Widmann adds some interpolations from the Bach Second Orchestral Suite in B minor BWV 1067 ‘Badinerie’  last movement, which , as a quasi extended Baroque flute concerto, acts as parodied component of the  whole work, as well as serving as a kind of musical joke?, Although in Walter Benjamin’s terms of the ‘decline of the Aura’ it could work as something diametrically opposed to any kind of joke! But all this had no resonance with the audience tonight, with their various clusters of  laughter, especially from the Prom arena. Welser-Most and the Cleveland Orchestra provided the most involved contouring of the work’s prismatic unfolding,  together with Joshua Smith – a level of involvement which no doubt comes from the composer’s previous two year residency with the orchestra.

There was much to admire in Welzer-Most’s rendition of the Brahms First Symphony: plenty of eloquent lyricism,  not an ounce of over-blown indulgent rhetoric,  superb playing (with correct antiphonally placed violins) as one would expect. Welser-Most plays mostly what is there in the score. But surely the opening ‘un poco sostenuto’, what Donald Tovey called a ‘gigantic procession’. needs more orchestral weight, more thrust? And it is possible to play this opening with plenty of weight without resorting to portentous heaviness, as has been demonstrated by conductors like Harnoncourt.  The whole of the huge first movement has a tragic, dramatic tone, not really conveyed tonight. The ‘Allegro’ with its minor key harmonies needs more thrust; those trenchant cross-rhytms initiated in the lower strings at the end of the exposition require a sronger sense of dynamic contour and rhythmic tension. Later I listened to an old 1943 NBC broadcast with Toscanini conducting, and here the whole Beethovenian power of the music is overwhelming, as it should be. I have never since heard those cross-rhythms played with such an engagement with the music. With Toscanini the music, as it were, comes to life!

The second and third movements were played with considerable eloquence, with well chosen tempi; the ‘Andante sostenuto second movement never dragged, but at times a note of blandness crept in.  The third movement ‘un poco allegretto e grazioso’ found Welzer- Most at his best especially in the ‘grazioso’ phrasing and lightness of touch.

The C minor introduction to the finale was suitably dark and well played. But by the time we reached the bar before the ‘piu andante’ with the dramatic fff entry of timpani in an arresting roll, everything sounded rather tame (the dramatic timpani crash hardly noticeable) thus inhibiting the incredible contrast  the following C major horn call brings. Welser-Most conducted the ‘Allegro’ quite well with fairly swift tempi – the great tune, often compared/associated with theme from the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, was well shaped and phrased. But as the ‘Allegro’ finale progressed, with its highly contrapuntal development section, I had little sense of contrast and expectation, or anticipation of the great crowning jubilation of the coda felt so urgently with the greatest performances. And when the coda did come it had the peculiar sense of a rehearsal run-through. The tutti intonement of the great chorale theme – for Tovey, ‘the most solemn moment in the whole symphony’ –  was drastically toned-down. I expect the logic here is to dissociate it from the pompous overblown interpretations of this cardinal passage found in some of the famous, mostly Teutonic, exponents of old style maestro grandiosity of the not too distant past. This is quite understandable, but to my ears Welser-Most went too far in the opposite direction. Also in the dance-like jubilation following the chorale ( a ‘final dance of victory’ for tonight’s programme note writer) more panache was needed, especially from the timpani, which again curiously was played down.

I noticed that David Gutman in the section of the programme giving ‘further listening’ information makes a special mention of the Toscanini broadcast made in London’s newly opened Royal Festival Hall in November 1952 as part of a two evening Brahms symphony cycle, saying: …’it would be difficult to trump the particular intensity Arturo Toscanini achieved’…  And despite much fine playing and lyrical finesse it was exactly that degree of intensity – a sense of the whole symphony dramatically coming to life- which was so lacking tonight.  It is informative to note that in the Toscanini broadcast performance (on the Testament label) the orchestra – the superb ‘original’ Philharmonia – although generally playing magnificently for the great Italian maestro, produced a few lapses in orchestral unity, probably due to a sense of anticipation/anxiety at the thought of playing for the most celebrated conductor of the age with his legendary rages and tantrums. Actually and despite some moments of tension, the rehearsals were relaxed affairs. But the point here is that a few moments of orchestral untidiness in no way diminished the fire, drama and intensity Toscanini brought to the Brahms First Symphony. If any thing, in a paradoxical sense,  such orchestral lapses, particularly in a live performance, can actually enhance the sense of a live event; a sense that the overall dramatic event, its message, is in no way an easy, or  automatically predictable artistic/musical task.

As an encore Welser-Most gave us the delightfully charming Csardas from Johann Strauss’s opera Ritter Pasman. Again and predictably, incredibly accurate, scintillating playing and conducting.

Geoff Diggines.  








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