United Kingdom Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn: Ray Chan (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Christoph Eschenbach (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 25.2.2015
Beethoven: Overture, Egmont, Op.84
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 57
Schumann: Overture Scherzo and Finale, Op.52
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64
This was a conservative concert both in its programming and in the deployment of a full size symphony orchestra (eight double-bases). Rather than beginning with a well known overture why not begin with or insert a contemporary work by, say, Olga Neuwirth or Pascal Dusapin, two important Austrian/French composers very seldom performed on the London concert scene? This is the kind of innovative programming Jurowski promotes with the same orchestra. The Egmont Overture was given a rather four-square rendition. I had no sense of the dramatic tragedy announced in the F minor opening chords and throughout the sound-scape was dominated by a well articulated but heavy string sound obscuring all kinds of nuance in the woodwinds, trumpets, and timpani, which were rather underpowered during the whole concert, despite the rather tokenistic used of hard sticks. The lead in to the main allegro was strangely lacking in urgent tension, as was the allegro. What happened to the trenchant bass-line here? The finale ‘Symphony of Victory’ (Beethoven’s nomination) was well played but it was totally lacking in terms of triumph and jubilation. For that one must go to Harnoncourt or, if you don’t mind mono sound, Toscanini.
Schumann’s delightful Overture, Scherzo and Finale is not much played in concert today; I can’t remember the last time I heard it ‘live’ so to speak, although there are some very fine recordings, including several period performances. The composer saw it as a kind of down-sized, more user-friendly symphony, thereby attracting a wider audience – which from its premiere in 1841 until the present it never has. But although it was toned down in terms of duration Schumann did not make any concessions to compositional invention, like the mock Sturm und Drang minor mode declension in the first movement allegro initiating the brief development section. I didn’t always feel that Eschenbach inflected such transitions sufficiently thus down-playing the many contrasts involved. The economic canonic style Scherzo lacked all sense of ‘matching dynamics’ (in terms of both dynamics and mood – stimmung) and harmonic juxtaposition involving tricky cross-rhyhms, despite being played quite accurately. And the C major finale, with its opening flowing double-fugue lacked a sense of buoyancy and movement, as when Schumann plays with tutti sforzfati chords to initiate a kind of parodied quasi fugue in celli and basses. Here the accented rhythms sounded blunt and bland. The final tutti peroration was peculiarly toned down deflecting from Schumann’s sense jubilation through the most economic means. For a modern period version one should try Roy Goodman and the Hanover Band where all the instrumental detail lacking tonight – especially woodwind and brass – are clearly audible. For a more traditional reading there is Sawallisch and the wonderfully responsive Dresden Orchestra.
From the opening phrases of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto it was apparent that Chen had some tuning difficulties. And throughout the first movement, with its chromatic transitions, and modulations around two main themes, his playing lacked the necessary pure toned cantilena, often sounding strident and shrill. The cadenza (written out by Mendelssohn himself to discourage any kind of distorted concoctions from virtuoso violinists) lacked the unity and line found in violinists like Heifetz, and more recently Alina Ibragimova. And to the end of the cadenza Chen, for reasons best known to himself, slowed down considerably. This distorting slower tempo was extended well into the recapitulation endowing the movement with a lack of coherence. The Andante, taken in a tempo more akin to an adagio tended to drag with a species of cloying sentimentality (vibrato heavy) creeping into the middle section. The Allegro vivace finale came off best, although on several occasions Chen’s playing seemed rushed resulting in a failure to register clearly the movement’s myriad twists and turns and nuanced detail. The LPO played quite well, although at times inner detail was obscured, as in the delicate woodwind/string counterpoint at the beginning of the first movement recapitulation. Throughout there was little sense of anything approaching a dialogue between soloist and conductor. Chen chose the Caprice No. 21 by Paganini as an encore. It had none of the finesse violinists like Kogan used to bring to it, but the audience loved it.
There was certainly a sense of urgency in Eschenbach’s conducting of the famous four-note figure which opens Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It was a real Allegro con brio, and he more or less sustained this urgent tension throughout the first movement. Also he had some good solutions ( or compromises) to some of the disputed textual points. To give one example, the disputed bassoon statement at the opening 4 bars, now in C major, just before the coda proper, was given to the bassoon with a tail-off on the horns – a nice quasi solution to an old problem – although most period performances now opt for the bassoon version. But overall I felt that Eschenbach’s dynamics were overlaid with textures which were too well-upholstered, with the need for some urgent symphonic cholesterol reduction! It is not that a full compliment of strings in itself leads to an inflated sound-scape, as classic recordings by Erich Kleiber and Toscanini demonstrate. The full force of a modern symphony orchestra can sound just as dynamically contrasted and compelling as a period performance. But there was a tendency towards a kind of homogenised sound which stymied the more dramatic contrasts; it could be described as a lack of bite. There were numerous examples, throughout the whole symphony, where I needed to hear more of a grasp of rhythmic diversity and control. The question of rhythm, as Toscanini understood so well, is not just to determine a specific rhythmic, contingent style (which can sound superficial and bland), it is more to do with timing: the choice of exactly the right tempo which once it was adopted would automatically create an irresistible and natural rhythm. Stravinsky once claimed that the short terse build up to the equally terse development, with its tense rhythmic cross-overs and trenchant accents and contrasts all pervaded by the famous four-note figure, was dynamically, rhythmically as challenging as anything in Le Sacre du Printemps! It was this challenging intensity which I found peculiarly lacking tonight.
I shall confine myself to a few critical remarks in relation to the remaining movements. The Andante con moto was well paced and didn’t drag. But at times it all seemed to move on the same dynamic level, which introduced a note of blandness. I wanted to hear more of a sense of balance, ‘matching dynamics’, more of the echoes, imitations and responses between woodwind and strings, the translucent quality of the detail of the inner parts of the orchestral texture, the wonderfully apt sotto voce excitement of the hushed pp of the short ‘piu mosso’ sequence. The Scherzo lacked power and drama and in the G major Trio with its fugato in the lower registers sounded peculiarly tame with no real delineation discernible between the double-basses and celli. The famous lead up to the final Allegro – from vague darkness to blazing light – sounded rather tentative and underpowered and the long ppp passage with its throbbing drumbeat was barely audible. Eschenbach didn’t seem to understand that the crescendo itself is indicated by Beethoven to start eight bars before the Finale proper bursts out with its C major Allegro. Eschenbach unnecessarily speeded up the coda thus giving it a kind of of tacked-on quality. I don’t know whether or not he intended a ‘grandstand’ touch. He would certainly not be alone here. When I arrived home I played the 1938 Toscanini recording of the coda in which there was no sense of the coda lasting too long (as there tended to be in the Eschenbach performance). With Toscanini there was a powerful sense of the coda as emerging ‘symphonically’, organically, from the preceding Allegro. With Toscanini the last twenty-four bars of C major ceased to be meaningless, curtain-lowering chords, becoming, in a miraculous way, an essential part of the pattern of the whole work.