Messiaen: Les offrandes oubliées (1930)
Haydn: Piano Concerto in D major, Hob. XVIII:II
Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C major, D. 944, ‘The Great’
The Vancouver Symphony’s survey of young conductors vying for the role of music director at the end of Bramwell Tovey’s tenure ramps up in earnest this year. First on the list was Frenchman Alexandre Bloch, recently appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Düsseldorf Symphony, and previously the London Symphony’s Assistant Conductor after winning the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition in 2012. His intensity and enthusiasm made for an interesting match with much-praised young Argentine pianist Ingrid Fliter, who came in with lots of bounce and flair as well. While the interpretative results were mixed, there can be little doubt that Bloch demonstrated some of the strongest orchestral control we have seen thus far from a young maestro.
Beginning the concert with Olivier Messiaen’s early Les offrandes oubliées (1930) was an adventurous idea, and the conductor brought an idiomatic sense of phrase to it. The opening achieved a nice coherence and frisson with strongly-etched textures. After its explosive and disturbing middle section, Bloch sensitively took the orchestra into the work’s quiet, timeless unfolding, both luminous and mystical in its religious inspiration.
Ingrid Fliter’s appearance in Haydn’s popular Concerto in D major took the energy level up a notch, the pianist attacking the work with the fervour of a young Argerich, backed by Bloch’s attentive conducting. Though there were some attractive things here, I think the pianist almost tried too hard to increase the stature of this work, frequently injecting all sorts of rubato and romantic flourish into the natural line of the music. I found her expositional line very short and ‘jumpy’. The un poco Adagio also seemed to lack considered shape or repose, the pianist very reactive to short-run beauties and adding a cadenza that seemed excessively florid. There was nothing stopping Fliter in the last movement, fully demonstrative in expression and full of noisy, foot-stomping pedaling. Jazzy and glamourous, certainly, though Haydn’s own natural wit and motion sort of got lost in it all. This may have been fun for the audience – and it is a ‘fun’ work – but the pianism was ultimately not distinctive.
Young conductors seldom have Schubert’s great Symphony in C major in their arsenal, and Maestro Bloch brought us the work for the first time in a number of years. Wedding the work’s structural demands with its ‘heavenly’ lyrical flow has never been an easy task, and it is hardly surprising that mature conductors of the central European tradition – such as Karl Bohm and Josef Krips – have recorded some of the most satisfying renderings. There are exceptions, of course, and the British are the most noteworthy: Barbirolli, Boult and Mackerras each recorded the work twice with success. But the French – well, not really. Perhaps only Charles Munch stands out from the distant past: exciting, brilliant and fast paced but not particularly Viennese. Interestingly, Alexandre Bloch aimed at speed and brilliance too, though some of his fast pace may have been historically informed; one also noted his insertion of repeats in the first and last movements.
After a fleet opening horn theme, Bloch’s approach was all about creating ongoing waves of motion, building to the massed brass proclamations of the climaxes. The emphasis was clearly on the Allegro part of the movement’s marking, not the ‘ma non troppo’. In fact, very little space was left to find either lyrical contemplation or the quiet, darker undercurrent that registers in the soft lower strings and brass. What essentially emerged was a movement that hurtled forth much like an operatic overture, high stepping and passionate: some of the bustle and froth in the winds actually took me to Rossini. This was unusual and eye-opening, but clearly a good distance from the intensely human or majestic Schubert we know and love.
The tempo for the Andante was more conventional. While the movement might have started more softly and coaxed a more innocent and charming response from the winds, its main liability was the sheer force of its rhythmic thrust. Rhythms were much more emphatic than ‘sprung’, and I think these early dramatics made the ultimate climax of the movement less telling when it arrived, as passionately as Bloch actually delivered it. While the overall pacing was unexceptionable, it would also be difficult to say that the conducting found much of an intimate chord. There was little feeling of sadness, and some expression tended to the suave.
For all its energy, things did not improve much in the Scherzo, again tending to rhythmic brashness with little sense of play. The Trio was also slightly pale, with its innocent, carefree Ländler flow and coaxing charm, only fitfully realized by the strings. The finale started from a clipped, disciplined posture, creating almost a militaristic feeling. I did think that the ‘big’ tune came out more jaunty than noble, aided and abetted by some questionable experimentation with the trumpet on the obbligato line. Nonetheless, the control of dynamics and the sense of anticipation right towards the end turned out to be sterling – the best conducting of the night – and ultimately brought the work home with the right blaze of glory.
One could hardly help but be impressed by the sheer energy of this performance, though it is not the type of reading that I would wish to return to very often. It was simply too light on Schubertian sensibility and magic, and often tended to let a (possibly Gallic) glamour and thrust dominate both the composer’s intimacy and his rich lyrical line. True to fact, the traversal did feel very much like an auditioning conductor’s attempt to bring a vital, galvanizing response from the orchestra. Forget relaxation and poetry, here intensity and powerful execution is the desiderata. And that is, in many ways, what we got: one certainly cannot deny Alexandre Bloch’s ability to command an orchestra, and the ensemble played with conviction and a strong, cohesive blend.
Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com