Untraditional Programming Impairs London Philharmonic Concert

Brahms, Schubert, Richard Strauss: Lars Vogt (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Yennick Nezet-Seguin, Royal Festival Hall, London, 19.11.2014. (GD)

Brahms:  P iano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op.83
Schubert :Symphony No.8 in B minor (Unfinished), D759
Richard Strauss: Don Juan, Op. 20

There was no discernible thematic link to this concert, apart from all the works belonging to the great Austro/German musical tradition – although some would hold objections to Richard Strauss as being part of that tradition. Also, in traditional programming terms, the choice of works would be inverted, with the Strauss tone poem opening the concert, and the Brahms concerto as the final work. I, for one, had an uncomfortable sense of bathos, with the beautifully autumnal and lyrical coda of the Schubert symphony being followed by the flashy brashness of the Strauss tone-poem.

Last year I remember being captivated by the glorious opening horn dialogue of the Brahms concerto with the horns of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; such a ravishingly warm golden tone without ever sounding over rich. By contrast tonight I was put off by a horn fluff which stuck out like the proverbial ‘sore thumb’. And Vogt’s first entry had a certain forced and clangorous tone, totally missing the sonorous warmth and range found with pianists like Pollini, Gilels, Richter and Horowitz. The following majestic theme with full orchestra was clear and well articulated but it had a certain forced quality with strident trumpets; also it did not emerge spontaneously from the opening theme on which it is based. In fact, the whole vast movement lacked any sense of line and structural coherence. The complex and extended development section, beginning in B minor, tended to sag, undermining the rich modulations, and spiralling cross-rhythms played out between piano and orchestra. All this was not helped by a lack of rapport between soloist and conductor; they were mostly together but without any sense of real dialogue.

Similarly the second movement, really a scherzo, lacked a sense of overall coherence. In the second lyrical plaintive theme, in contrast to the energetic opening statement between piano and lower strings, Nezet-Seguin made a Ritenuto, nowhere specified in the score, thus holding up the natural forward drive of the music. The wonderful major key passage for contrapuntal strings sounded choppy and too fast, not helped here by non antiphonal violins. In the ‘Andante’ despite a nicely phrased opening solo cello Vogt didn’t convey the glowing tone of inner warmth and lyricism, so radiant in this movement. The agitated middle section came across best with its alternating ascending/descending cascades and final resolution in F sharp major. But again I had no sense of dialogue and Nezet-Seguin’s conducting tended towards an unidiomatic blandness.

The finale is arguably Brahms’s most Mozartian composition in its economy, delicacy and gentle humour. The six basic themes were all articulated quite well, But Vogt again tended towards over pedalling and an already mentioned forcefulness: all his notes where clear, but he didn’t seem to be able to empathise with the lighter, more subtle aspects. Tovey captured the tone, or mood, here describing it as ‘child-like’. At times Nezet-Seguin tended to rush thus deflecting from the relaxed nature of the music. And some moments of rough ensemble blurred some wonderful passages of delicate interplay in the orchestra and between orchestra and soloist.

Nezet-Seguin conducted a quite spacious account of Schubert’s famous ‘Unfinished’ Symphony. The opening B minor descending phrase in the basses sounded appropriately sonorous and mysterious. Who else at the time in Vienna would have opened a symphony like this? Certainly not Mozart, and very unlikely Beethoven. AIough Schubert has often been criticised for having a weak understanding of sonata form, this symphony is one of the most perfect examples of thematic symphonic construction. It even may have been that Schubert was changing the accepted sonata model to produce a new symphonic paradigm. If one listens to the last three ‘great’ piano sonatas this vew is reinforced. Also, while listening to this unique music, I was reminded of how difficult it was, and is, to interpret, and to conduct. As Donald Tovey said the Unfinished Symphony is a test, not only for a musical analyst, but also for any conductor. So did the young Canadian/French conductor pass this test? Well, in some ways I think he could have done: there were plenty of good things here; but overall I don’t think he did. The transition G major melody went well, with a little too much vibrato for my taste. But the following tutti sforzandi, interspersed with measured pauses, did not somehow cohere with the whole. The exposition repeat was wisely observed, and the beginning of the development section; a long crescendo, initiated by ppp strings to an E minor version of the opening theme on full orchestra, sounded a tad contrived, it was quite impressive in itself, but failed to cohere in the way conductors like Toscanini, Klemperer and more recently Abbado make it cohere with the overall structure. The ‘Andante con moto’, with its ethereal lyricism over a descending pizzicato bass figure sounded quite clear, although at times I had the feeling that the conductor was attempting to draw too much beautiful lyricism from the orchestra, loving the music too much. The following minor key of the gruff string ‘unisono’ figure as a kind of sombre march (actually reworked from the opening pizzicato figures) , was unnecessarily punctuated by
trombone staccato inflections. Of course, the passage is interwoven with a brass/woodwind chorale theme, but this trombone ‘effect’ simply sounded mannered, out of place. Why introduce an instrumental interpolation to a score which is in itself so wonderfully and economically orchestrated? The dramatic interruption of a C sharp minor theme for full orchestra with harsh tutti blows made quite a commanding effect, though I felt the complex and startled accompanying string configurations could have been made more audible, given more ‘edge’. After the recapitulation this is repeated with a slightly different rhythmic structure. I once heard a a radio commentator refer to these extraordinary passages as the movements ‘loud bits’. The final dying away pages were brought off with great skill.

Srauss based his youthful tone poem Don Juan on Lenau’s version of the legend. Although Strauss left no narrative programme, much has been written on both Lenau’s and Strauss’s musical view of the legend: Freudians have tended to link it to Freud’s ‘Death Drive’ in the sense of the Don obsessively repeating his narcissistic seductions leading to abjection and death. And feminist writers have seen in the Don a male phantasy of sexual domination, subtended by male anxiety and castration complex. Strauss’s opening ‘priapic’ orchestral upsurge would seem in line with this view. Nezet-Seguin’s conducting was certainly full of energy and drive, although on occasion I found it rather hard-driven. The solo violin and oboe melodies (as various statements of the Don’s ‘Ideal Woman’) were well incorporated. most of the orchestral execution reached a virtuosic level, although the balance of woodwinds and brass especially lacked a certain finesse, heard so idiomatically in the old Reiner recording from Chicago. The sections representing the Don’s realisation of his own failures, the duel and his death. sounded rather bland when compared with classic performances on record from Toscanini and Clemens Krauss. The chaos of the Don’s defeat (in the duel) sounded merely loud, totally missing the chiaroscuro orchestral diversity heard in the above mentioned conductors. Throughout the concert the LPO played well, and at times very well. But I have heard them in much better and resplendent form under Jurowski and the 90 year old Stanislaw Skrowaczewski.

Geoff Diggines.

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