A Disappointing Evening with Camerata Salzburg and Ben Gernon

 Bartók, Bruckner, and Mozart: Nicola Benedetti (violin), Camerata Salzburg, Ben Gernon (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, 11.3.2015 (MB)

BartókDivertimento, Sz 113
Mozart – Violin Concerto no.5 in A major, KV 219
Rondo in C major, KV 373
Bruckner (arr. Stanislaw Skrowaczewski) – ‘Adagio’ from String Quintet in F major
Mozart – Symphony no.29 in A major, KV 201/186a


A disappointing concert, I am afraid, for which much of the responsibility lay with the conductor, Ben Gernon. I was initially intrigued by the decidedly unusual performance of Bartók’s Divertimento. To his credit, Gernon observed the ‘non troppo’ from Bartók’s ‘Allegro non troppo’ marking to the first movement, though perhaps he observed it a little ‘troppo’. It certainly felt like the slowest account I had heard. The playing of the Camerata Salzburg was in its way impressive, the strings really digging in, but offering a sound that was more generally mitteleuropäisch than Hungarian. That I did not mind, though my companion was less impressed; however, as the work progressed, what might at first have seemed refreshingly different merely sounded inappropriate. The lack of a greater intensity from and/or a greater body of strings was felt strongly during the slow movement. It was not that that greater intensity could not be summoned up; it just needed to be done so more often. When the finale began, I again wondered whether something less frenetic than usual might actually prove revealing. Despite some fine solo playing, however, the movement and the work as a whole remained earthbound.

Nicola Benedetti joined the orchestra for Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto and, as a sort of written-in encore, the C major Rondo for Violin and Orchestra. The first movement of the concerto announced a better sense of style. One would, of course, hope so with this orchestra, although one hardly knows what to expect post-Norringtonisation. Vibrato, at least, was not eschewed, although it might have been employed more freely. Benedetti’s Adagio entry properly disoriented, almost as if an operatic character had awoken. I was less sure about what followed. At its best, Benedetti’s violin tone was characterful, whether silvery or bright. However, there were numerous surprising intonational slips and, more worrying, strange bulgings of phrasing. The movement never really settled down, and never sounded effortless. Its successor, the Adagio, would have benefited from warmer orchestra playing; perhaps the Camerata still has ghosts of dated ‘authenticity’ to lay. Both soloist and orchestra had an unfortunate tendency of progressing from beat to beat, with little sense of a longer line. The music plodded rather than flowed. More successful was the finale, which proved both warmer of tone and more connected. A sensible tempo was adopted and, perhaps surprisingly, given the movement’s structure, there was, if only at times, a greater sense of dramatic development. The ‘Turkish’ music offered welcome contrast, though not too much. However, some tricky corners ought to have been more smoothly handled. The C major Rondo was played with grace, functioning well as an encore, although there was nothing to challenge players such as Arthur Grumiaux here either.

In this rather oddly conceived programme, the second half followed with Stanislaw Skrowaczewski’s arrangement for string orchestra of the Adagio from Bruckner’s String Quintet. A somewhat bizarre programme note engaged in ill-expressed special pleading. (A taste: ‘The work was composed between the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and so is an example of Bruckner at full maturity and the Adagio is one of his greatest symphonic movements and it would be a pity indeed if it languished unperformed because of purist concerns about playing a single movement out of its context.’) Again, Gernon conveyed little of the longer line, a failing as damaging to Bruckner as it is to Mozart. The music progressed from note to note, with the unfortunate consequence that I began to fear that it would never end. There is no reason at all why performance of this arrangement should require special pleading; it just needs a Skrowaczewski to bring it to life, and ideally, a larger body of strings.

String tone, if not aggressively ‘period’, was thinner in the A major Symphony than it had been in the works with violin. (Had inclinations been tempered, perhaps, for Benedetti’s benefit?) The first movement set the tone for what followed, proving ‘light’ in a meagre rather than spirited sense. One had a reasonable idea of how it hung together, but there was little beyond that to the performance. Thinness of tone was even more of a problem in the slow movement, which at least was not taken so absurdly fast as has recently become fashionable; as an Andante, it was well judged. Playing was generally alert, though occasionally scrappy, in the Minuet. The Trio, however, less relaxed than slumped. It was not a matter of speed, but of lack of tension. Encouragingly, the finale began in rigorous fashion, with not a little swagger. Alas, it lost its way soon enough. Mozart remains the sternest test for any conductor – or orchestra, or soloist. No one passed with flying colours on this occasion.

Mark Berry

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