Vienna Sees Pianist-Conductor Lahav Shani Triumph in Bach and Mahler

AustriaAustria Bach and Mahler: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Lahav Shani (piano/conductor). Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna, 23.11.2015. (MB)

Bach: Piano Concerto no.1 in D minor, BWV 1052

Mahler: Symphony no.1 in D major

What a refreshing change to hear a Bach keyboard concerto not only played on the piano, but by someone who did not sound ashamed of the instrument! In the performance of Bach’s D minor concerto, one needed to make no allowances for Lahav Shani making his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic; this would have been a fine concert from anyone. The orchestra was small – for the Bach, that is – at, although doubtless enormous enough for the ayatollahs of ‘authenticity’ to order exemplary punishment. Shani took the first movement faster than I had heard before, but without it sounding in the least garbled or harried. Demisemiquavers remained melodic, likewise trills: never for mere effect. There was always clear understanding of relative melodic weight within groups, as there was from the Vienna strings, similarly of the work’s greater contours. The Adagio was taken rightly in slow triple time, unmistakeably triple, unmistakeably an Adagio. (If that sounds tautologous, tell that to the zealots!) Shani again proved his own man, the tone of his cantilena noble, almost defiant, always underpinned by the bass. He can certainly spin a long line without detriment to the chiaroscuro. There was a broadly, harmonically conceived ritardando at the end, which, being harmonically conceived, was not in the slightest excessive. The finale was again fast, but not too fast. Shani’s piano cut nicely through the strings. A duet with solo cello brought a nice element of variation, whilst the light and shade in the piano part was such as one might hear in an excellent performance of Schumann, but hears far too rarely today in Bach.

There was, needless to say, a larger body of strings for Mahler’s First Symphony. From my seat in the right hand-side of the balcony, I could not see the whole orchestra, but there were sixteen first violins, going down to eight double basses (in VPO style, along the back of the orchestra), firsts and seconds split to left and right of the conductor. Shani conducted the work from memory; he is, apparently, about to conduct it in Birmingham with the CBSO. One would expect the Vienna Philharmonic violins to sail through the stiff test of those opening harmonics; it nevertheless remains a stiff test and is always worthy of praise when passed. Shani’s performance was anything but an identikit performance. Again, he proved his own man, but differences from tradition/Schlamperei never sounded different for their own sake; they could always be justified within his conception. During the long introduction to the first movement, a growling bass line, at an unusually – convincingly – slow tempo, had the woodwind sound unusually – convincingly – uneasy above. The contrast with spring-like gambolling thereafter, with wonderfully sweet string playing, was clear, but so too was kinship, calling into question that contrast; Mahler’s playing with sonata form expectations was clearly both understood and communicated, harmonic tension screwed up nicely. The symphony’s Wayfarer roots were clear, but so was their transformation. Moments and passages of unease sounded, not through undue grotesquerie, but through their roots in and deviation from German Romanticism. And when the dam finally burst, there was some magnificent orchestral swagger, perhaps most notably from the Vienna horns, but not just from them. I was a little uncertain about the somewhat throwaway ending, but again, Shani was clearly not hidebound by Schlamperei.

It was good to hear the strings really dig in for the Ländler to follow. Here, numbers counted, but still more so did rhythm and its relationship to harmony. Shani clearly, like his mentor, Daniel Barenboim, has a fine ear for harmony and its implications. Beethoven is a sterner test again, but I should be interested to hear what he has to say there. The bass line again proved the root of much questioning. A tender horn call – the German, weich, so often seems the mot juste in such a context – ushering in the Trio, seemed momentarily to look into the future, as far, perhaps as the Seventh Symphony, reminding us that the undeniable charm of the new material was not to be taken without a good dose of irony. The return of the initial material had it thereby sound quite transformed, the showmanship of the conclusion growing out of it rather than imposed upon it.

Ghostly kettledrums, taking Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream somewhere it never wanted to go, began their dance of death with solo double-bass. (Thank goodness there was none of that nonsense of employing the entire section, an absurdity for which Sander Wilkens, editor of the so-called critical edition, should hang his head in shame!)  The canon gathered momentum just as it should: with a fragility that proved both real and deceptive. Pyramus and Thisbe indeed! And the Klezmer music was equally well judged; remembered, reimagined, integrated, the tension thereby all the greater than if it sounded, as too often occurs, as if it had come from nowhere. It was sardonic, but the Romantic framing remained: both need each other. There was, moreover, a wonderful stillness thereafter, which put me in mind of the slow movement to the Fourth Symphony. Solo oboe and violin cut through that stillness with cruel beauty. And then: harp intonation of death, returning us to an eerily intensified ‘Bruder Martin’. The end, intriguingly, sounded as if it might disintegrate into the opening of Berg’s Op.6 Orchestral Pieces.

The opening of the finale proved quite a wake-up call. This is hardly a time for understatement, and yet, what was to come reminded us that theatrics need a harmonic foundation. A little too much of those theatrics at times? Perhaps, but there is more than one way to skin a Mahlerian cat. I, for one, rather welcomed the sense of a blinding flash, especially – and this was the key in retrospect – when the slow, cloying, knowing sweetness, honest in its desperation for a past that never was, told its own tale. If one has the Vienna Philharmonic’s strings, one might as well use them to full effect! Episodes screamed, but did not just scream; they spoke too. Moments, passages of calm, as in the preceding movement, were not just what they might initially have seemed either. This was an integrative reading, which this movement, its structure perhaps problematical unless powerfully unified in performance, cries out for – in every sense. And so, triumph, when it came, felt and indeed had been earned. I have little doubt that we shall hear more from this pianist-conductor.

Mark Berry

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