Revelatory Playing from Carolin Widmann in Berg’s Violin Concerto

Charles Ives, Berg, Schubert: Carolin Widmann (violin), The Philharmonia Orchestra / Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 1.10.2015. (GD)

Charles Ives  The Unanswered Question (Contemplation No.1)

Berg  Violin Concerto

Schubert  Symphony No.9 in C (Great)

It was good to hear Dohnányi in 20th century repertory in contrast to most of his programming, firmly entrenched in the 19th century Austro/German classics. Even  though Ives’ The Unanswered Question was written in 1906 the off-stage atonal trumpet sequences as intoning the ‘Perennial Questions of Existence’, could well have come from the second half of that century. The work, lasting just over six minutes tonight, starts and is permeated by the strings playing ‘slowly changing chords in G major’, representing ‘The silences of the Druids’. As in the second meditation ‘Central Park in the Dark’. it is punctuated by contrasting, but related material, here a quartet of flutes, which attempt, in vein, to answer the aporia of ‘existence’. Tonight the flutes were situated at the back of the orchestra with an unnamed conductor. Everything was well sustained by Dohnányi, with particularly fine (sustained) playing from the  strings, thankfully with antiphonal violins here and throughout the concert. Occasionally I wanted to hear more ‘mystery’; I am not quite sure one ‘hears’ mystery, but it is certainly ‘there’ with the various recordings we have from Bernstein.

I had not heard German violinist Carolin Widmann before, but on the evidence of tonight’s rendition she can certainly rank among the best violinists today. I was particularly impressed at the way in which she negotiated the various rhythmic/dynamic contrasts of the second turbulent movement ‘Allegro’ which is a kind of extended accompanied cadenza against a set of variations veering constantly between moods as divergent as spiritual calm and sensuality and ‘mourning’ and longing  It is well known that Berg intended the work as a requiem for Manon, the daughter of Berg’s friends Walter and Alma Mahler Gropius, who died aged 18 – ‘to the memory of an angel’ as Berg inscribed it on the first page of the score. The contrasting tonal moods here are extremely difficult for any violinist, but Widmann played as though they were written for her, sustaining the various levels of contrast and juxtaposition throughout the whole concerto. It is interesting to note that Berg wrote the concerto (his last completed work) at the time he was composing his last unfinished opera Lulu (from the controversial play by Frank Wedekind) where Berg wrote some of his most sensuous music, but also of a sensuality tinged with corruption, sexual inversion,  prostitution and murder. And some of these sensuous strains can be heard in the concerto. Some contemporary critics complained of the tone of sensuality in a concerto as a quasi requiem. But as that other famous inhabitant of Vienna Sigmund Freud pointed out, mourning, death, desire and sexuality are inextricably linked, not necessarily in an overt way, and Berg’s allusions to various levels of sensuality in this concerto are similarly restrained and discreet. In the ‘Allegro’, as a quasi cadenza, the soloist is very much to the fore, but not in the 19th century virtuosic  ostentatious manner. Here Berg creates a real dialogue between solo violin and orchestra and here Widmann and Dohnányi were in total accord, a real dialogue. Widmann balanced the gentle opening Andante with its delicate transition to the more Viennese inflected dance-like but reflective Allegretto, with a superb sense of timing and subtle contrast;  her clear and lyrical ascending cantilena was breath-taking. Throughout she deployed open string tone and double-stopping with the utmost economy, never drawing attention to itself; likewise with her judicious use of vibrato. Dohnányi conducted with a wonderful sense of overall design while still attending to every detail with consummate insight. The integration of percussion, mostly in the ‘Allegro’, movement, were particularly well balanced reflecting Berg’s superbly economic and original orchestration. The percussion, especially the bass drum, were splendidly balanced and played. The closing ‘Adagio’ with its combination of a Carinthian folk song and the chorale Es ist genung (It is enough, Lord), with Bach’s harmonization, from the Cantata Oh Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort BWV60 were beautifully realised by both violinist and conductor intoning an ethereal and haunting sound-world, especially from the woodwinds. And the soloist’s transmogrification / declension (Adorno’s Bergian ‘evanescence’) into the first violins, just before the quiet coda, was beautifully crafted. Occasionally I missed the vibrant finesse of the likes of Anne-Sophie Mutter, and Isabelle Faust, but in a sense Widmann realised the overall contours and ‘secrets’ of this unique work with even more conviction.

Overall we were given a very well crafted performance of Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphonybut from the outset with the first theme given out on by two horns in unison there was a sense of blandness. Rather than invoking a sense of distant wonder corresponding to an Upper Austrian Alpine scene, as heard from masters like Böhm, Krips and Harnoncourt with the unsurpassed Vienna Philharmonic, projecting their inimitable golden horn tone, the theme was just played as in a run through – too loud, perfunctory, with no sense of wonder. Dohnányi managed the long lead transition into the main ‘Allegro ma non troppo’ with considerable skill realising the seminal importance of precise rhythmic articulation, and he deployed antiphonal violins which allowed for so much clarity of interplay.  Dohnányi moulded the G major lyrical second subject well, with fine woodwind articulation. This lyrical theme develops thematically and tonally to the mid-movement G major with a fortissimo quasi ostinato climax and triumphant chordal interplay between the strings with the all important trombones. I had little sense here of triumphal arrival cohering symphonically with and from the preceding narrative structure. And in such passages I wanted to hear more from those ‘all important’ trombones. As is customary today, Dohnányi restored Schubert’s original scoring for the movement’s coda, without the addition of blaring trumpets, thus achieving a better, more audible balance between woodwind  strings. Much of the coda sounded impressive, but again I lost any sense of it emerging from the movements inner structure; as a kind of summing up. Also again I wanted a more distinct tone from the trombones. Dohnányi rightly played the movements exposition repeat, which adds so much to the  movements wide ranging contours.

The second movement gained by being played, as instructed, as a true ‘Andante con moto’, Dohnányi fully realising the ‘indomitable march-rhythm’ of this A minor invention. The tutti marcato sforzando interjections were well sprung, never sounding heavy and Teutonic as in the Furtwängler tradition, but always making their sharp impact felt. The great fff A minor climax (the chord of the diminished 7th)  was  played as written, with no diconcerting slowing down for effect. But I missed that element of drama and impact heard so sharply and radiantly in Toscanini’s various recordings. The transition to the following contrast of the beautiful A major cello theme sounded totally natural and inevitable, with no need for an imposed ppp halo.

Dohnányi brought out all the Scherzo’s ‘Allegro vivace’ sharp rhythmic contrasts and was able to convey a degree of relaxation for the contrasting Viennese sounding dance music. But the A major trio with its bucolic sounding, full throated woodwinds and horns was curiously toned down, as though Dohnányi was somehow embarrassed by the music! It in no way corresponded with Tovey’s characterisation of this trio section as ‘a huge single melody – one of the greatest and most exhilarating melodies in the world’.

Dohnányi imbued the great finale with a structural coherence by maintaining a more or less sustained tempo which did not vary much from a well paced ‘Allegro’. But I felt little sense of tonal, thematic contrast, and although the allegro was clear and well articulated I missed any sense of an underlying pulse heard so ominously from conductors as varied as Toscanini and Mengelberg. In the A major development section, with its transition into A minor with massive brass chords I am not sure that Dohnányi captured the ‘terrifying’, ‘grotesque’ power Tovey found in this finale. Neither did he  equal the dramatic fire of a Toscanini, the stoic grandeur of a Klemperer, or the ‘echt’ Viennese lyricism of a Josef Krips. The lead up to the great coda  was well paced and played (although I did want more weight, heft from the double-basses) but again everything seemed to have a surface effect, the underlying ‘cosmic’ pulse rarely registering. The four repeated notes ,which constantly develop, permeate the movement, for Tovey are ‘as powerful and as terrible as anything in Beethoven or Michelangelo’ were merely played in an increasingly bland manner. There was no sense here of going ‘beyond’ the printed notes. Mengelberg’s 1941 Concertgebouw recording is stylistically very ‘incorrect’ – too interventionist for todays more historically informed standards – but what dramatic power and terror the great Dutch conductor found in this score!. Dohnányi did not hold on to the last blazing C major chord, as many conductors have done and continue to do, but if we look at the score we find that Schubert did not include a fermata. Dohnányi did not include the repeat in the last movement, which would have provided a more balanced sense of overall form. But on this occasion I was not too disappointed.

Overall then the concert was a mixed bag or as some would say, a ‘curate’s egg’. Undoubtedly the real highlight was the Berg Violin Concerto which for me Carolin Widmann played, invested, with a new and revealing dimension.

Geoff Diggines

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