A Refreshing Concert from the LPO and Markus Stenz

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Larcher, Stravinsky: Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra/Markus Stenz (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 28.10.2015 (MB)

Beethoven – Symphony no.1 in C major, op.21

Thomas Larcher – Violin Concerto

StravinskyThe Rite of Spring

 This was a refreshing concert from the LPO and Markus Stenz, with one work entirely new to me, and two works I might have feared I knew too well, given thought-provoking performances. Stenz’s approach to Beethoven’s First Symphony struck me from the outset as refreshingly un-ideological, save for the puzzling use of natural trumpets (though not horns, I had assumed that to be a quirk of Vladimir Jurowski, but maybe it is an LPO ‘thing’ instead). A spruce and precise first movement, particularly impressive with respect to accents and crescendi, did not, at least on occasion, lack weight. It was certainly more ‘Classical’ than Wagnerian, but there is no one way to perform this music. I should not have minded more vibrato from the strings, but at least it was not absent. If Haydn’s spirit had come to the fore structurally and motivically in that movement, Stenz’s shaping of the opening theme in the second and indeed the progress of the movement as a whole proved strikingly Mozartian: a different sort of complexity, often overlooked in Beethoven. I thought in particular of the slow movement of the Jupiter Symphony, but that was far from the only kinship suggested. Kettledrums nevertheless reminded us that this could only be Beethoven (or perhaps Haydn). My only complaint was that the orchestra sounded a little as if it were being pressed to sound ‘small-scale’, as if it were inhibited by something. There was no doubt whatsoever that the third movement was a true Beethoven scherzo; it sounded the most ‘advanced’ of the four. Its trio was graceful, though no less Beethovenian, for all the reminiscence of ‘bucolic’ Haydn. A splendidly teasing introduction to the finale captured its vocal and jesting quality. The movement possessed many of the virtues of the first, sounding lithe and lively. Excitement was musical rather than something imposed upon the music. Ultimately, this was a performance that made me think.

Thomas Larcher’s frankly tonal Violin Concerto was not quite what I had been expecting, and the surprise again set me thinking. In two movements, it was written for Isabelle Faust, who gave its first performance in 2009; here, the dazzlingly virtuosic, although not always tonally ingratiating, Patricia Kopatchinskaja was the estimable soloist. The first movement’s opening slow section offers an interesting combination of music-box sonorities and persistent, almost yet not quite minimalistic simplicity. The repeated E minor arpeggio put me in mind, a tone up, of the opening of The Art of Fugue: as if Bach were unable to get going and simply went around in a loop. (I have no reason to think that that is anything other than my own association.) The abruptness of change to the second section of this movement is striking – and was so too in performance. Tempo (very fast), sonority, harmony, rhythm: pretty much everything changes really, certainly the need, met with verve, for soloistic virtuosity. The close returns to the mood and material of the opening. ‘Romantic’ does not seem quite the right word for the second movement; nor does it seem entirely wrong (at least, I should stress, upon a single hearing, and without having seen the score). There is a hint of the ecstatic, which, despite its clear German Romantic roots, also put me in mind, perhaps arbitrarily, of Vaughan Williams. Pictorial virtuosity seems a particular hallmark of the violin writing. There is a strong narrative thrust, powerfully conveyed by Stenz and Kopatchinskaja. The close again returns to the arpeggio material and the general mood of the opening to the concerto, although it seems, quite deliberately, incomplete: perhaps deconstructed, perhaps not.

A performance of The Rite of Spring should always be an ‘occasion’; it certainly was here. As with the Beethoven, Stenz had clearly thought long and hard about the work. There was nothing routine to his interpretation; it undoubtedly had a logic and character of its own, without trying to be ‘different’ for the sake of it. There was menace in the slightly unusual drawn-out quality (a notable hairpin in particular) to Jonathan Davies’s opening bassoon solo. The teeming strangeness of what followed from the woodwind section really sounded as if being heard with fresh ears. Different sections of the work offered marked contrast, perhaps occasionally at the expense of a longer line, but also reflecting a strikingly balletic approach. That approach was reflected not only in sharply defined rhythm, such as one could imagine having helped the hapless corps on that notorious premiere, but as strong a kinship to the St Petersburg colours of Petrushka as I can recall having heard. This was ‘Russian’, yes, but without stereotype. More ‘purely’ musical matters were not neglected. Stravinsky’s cellular method and his screwing up of dramatic tension were admirably conveyed, with a striking sense of theatre. The LPO brass’s screams straightforwardly demanded one’s attention. Some electronic intervention from an audience member proved an unwanted interloper in what should have been silence prior to the ‘Dance of the Earth’. The weirdness of the opening to the Second Part seemed more clearly than ever to refer back to where it had all begun, at the beginning of the First Part. By the same token, and this combination intrigued, there was very much a world-weary quality: perhaps not unusual in itself, but at least a little so in its degree, which even had me think of the Prelude to the Third Act of Parsifal. (Sorry, Stravinsky, but your Wagnerian inheritance was never shaken off quite so readily as you might have wished to claim.) As the music proceeded, there was again nothing routine to be heard. Stenz seemed to have rethought the music as a conscientious performer should naturally do. Throughout, it was the spirit of the Ballets Russes and of theatre in general that was most intriguingly apparent.

Mark Berry

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