United Kingdom BBC Prom 63 – Messiaen, Mozart and Bruckner: Igor Levit (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 2.9.2015 (AS)
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat, K595
Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 in E
Messiaen’s Hymne, which was receiving its first performance at a Promenade concert, has an unusual history, as was told in the programme note. It’s a student work, written in 1932 when the composer was in his early twenties. During the second world war, all the materials for the piece were lost when Durand, Messiaen’s publisher, sent them to Lyon. In 1945 Leopold Stokowski enquired about the work, and Messiaen reconstructed the work from memory. We were told in the note that “various pieces of evidence” suggest that he did so accurately, but the nature of this evidence was not revealed. That the composer was entirely faithful to the original is suggested by his retention of the part written for timpani, an instrument he no longer used at the time of the reconstruction.
Rather curiously, Hymne, which is a kind of meditation on the ritual of the Eucharist, is less characteristic of its composer than Les offrandes oubliées, written two years earlier, though in certain ways it could have been created by no other hand. There is some effective writing for the upper strings, which in its particular quality of sweetness may reflect the incense-laden atmosphere of the Catholic religious celebration: louder sections featuring the large brass section convey perhaps the joyfulness of that celebration. The length of the work, some 12 minutes, seemed perfectly judged for its content, and on the evidence of a first hearing the performance seemed to be sympathetic and competent.
It was at once clear from Igor Levit’s entry after the opening tutti that his performance of Mozart’s last concerto would be a pretty intimate affair. This could have been one of those cases where listeners to the live Radio 3 relay may have been presented with a more satisfactory solo piano sound than those who heard the playing in the hall. Not only did Levit produce a somewhat dry, shallow tone quality with restricted sonority, but there was a deferential, repressed quality in his technically immaculate playing. It was clear that even with a smallish body of strings Oundjian was having to subdue the orchestral dynamics. There was a somewhat contrived quality in Levit’s delivery of the main theme of the middle movement Larghetto, with routine expression taking the place of any distinction in the phrasing. Though taken at a good lively tempo, the finale was colourless and deficient in energy.
The edition chosen by Oundjian for his performance of the Bruckner symphony was basically that of the reliable Robert Haas (1944), but with the addition of the original manuscript’s single cymbal clash with triangle and timpani at the powerfully dramatic change to C major in the slow movement, mistakenly removed by Haas but restored in Leopold Nowak’s edition of 1954. This slightly hybrid but logical performance solution is one that is often adopted by today’s conductors.
Oundjian’s approach to the first movement, and indeed to the whole work, was essentially lyrical in character. He let the music flow easily and naturally. The phrasing had plenty of warmth but there were no ‘expressive’ distortions. The pacing was good, there was a clear and logical sense of line, and the movement’s structure was well preserved. The second-movement Adagio sounded particularly beautiful in Oundjian’s hands. Again, the musical argument was clear and cohesive, so that each section of the movement fitted precisely and logically into the whole structure. There were no Teutonic ruminations: it wasn’t that kind of performance, and some listeners might have missed the weighty introspection of the great Austro-German conductors of yesteryear. But on its own terms it was quite a moving experience.
The tempo for the Scherzo was brisk, but not too much so, with a nicely contrasted trio section, and it was notable that in the finale Oundjian ignored the traditional but spurious ritardandi and, as in the first movement, allowed the musical argument to unfold naturally. Even the final climax was free of the usual slowing up, which was an interesting change from what we usually experience. It wasn’t a monumental performance, then, but one that still gave much satisfaction. The playing was generally of a high standard, especially on the part of the strings, which had an attractively warm and silky sound (no doubt as a result of coaching from the conductor, who was first violin of the Tokyo String Quartet for 14 years). But the horns and Wagner tubas occasionally misfired.