Brahms Double Concerto Lacks Dialogue and Integration

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dvořák, Brahms: Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Maximilian Hornung (cello), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 3.2.2016. (GD)

DvořákOverture,  Otello, op.93

Brahms: Double Concerto in A minor for violin cello and Orchestra, Op.102

Dvořák: Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op.60

This was a quite conservative concert. In normative terms the programming, the coupling of two well known 19th century composers, in the form of overture, concerto, and grand symphony, was quite consistent with conventional programming traditions going back to the 19th century. The inclusion of a little played Dvořák overture (really a kind of tone poem on Shakespeare’s Otello), as part of the ‘Shakespeare 400’ festival of events, was a good idea. But why not begin with a Shakespeare inspired work from a modern composer? Gosta Nystroem, Aribert Reimann and Henze, come immediately to mind, but there are many others. In this sense the orchestra’s principal conductor Vladimir Jurowski is far more imaginative, insisting on a modern work to contrast with a more traditional composition. But tonight’s concert was conservative (for many by no means a negative term) in other ways. Whenever a lyrical theme came (especially in the Dvořák symphony|)  Nézet-Séguin applied plenty of  espressivo, and slowing down, with thick layers of vibrato. And why did Mr Nézet-Séguin insist on non-antiphonal violins, which these works (especially the Brahms) were composed for? in the Brahms Double Concerto especially many passages of intricate counterpoint become virtually inaudible in the non-antiphonal layout.

The performance of the Dvořák overture went quite well and was well played, but from the ominous minor key andante opening there was a kind of static quality. I had no sense of imminent drama, so wonderfully ‘there’ in the old mono recording with Talich recording with the inimitable Czech Phiharmonic. Also the main dramatic sections, with striking harmonic, tonal progressions and jusxtapositions, came over as a tad pedestrian and four-square.  There are, as a matter of interest. quite a few other Czech composers who used Shakespearian themes, most famously Smetana and Zdenek Fibich.

Much the same can be said of the Brahms Double Concerto, a relatively late Brahms composition of staggering economy and concerto (or concertante) finesse. My main criticism was not only a certain lack of dialogue between the two soloists, but also a lack of integration with the orchestra. The recitatives for soloists should emerge immediately from the orchestral texture, ending in a passage first of dialogue and then of concerted action. Tonight one of the problems, in terms of all important dialogue, was that Miss Batiashvili came over as a soloist virtuoso, and although in technical terms her playing was fine, she didn’t really make any dialogic accord with cellist Maximilian Hornung. This is probably why some of the greatest performances of the concerto have bypassed virtuoso soloists and instead have deployed violin and cello from the orchestras’ front desks, Two of the greatest conductors of the last century on record opted for this: Toscanini and Furtwängler,  generally reckoned to be two of the very greatest performances, and one of the reasons for this is that both the two players spontaneously played in dialogue with each other for long terms with the orchestra and conductor. As in the opening overture there was a certain pedestrian element in  Nézet-Séguin’s conducting.  In the first movement as the exposition in extended sonata form developed there was a certain lack of contrast between the many tonal/harmonic  juxtapositions. And in the extended exposition I heard none of what Tovey called the unleashing of a ‘mighty concerto ritornello’. Also, well into the development, the sudden transformation into a marvellous and imposing fugal sequence sounded lumpy, lacking contrapuntal clarity. The opening D major dialogue for two horns in the Andante had a wonderful glowing tone (so typical of Brahms). This song-like tone was imbued with more glowing sounds in the unfolding of great ‘swinging’ melody, but again I had little sense of the ensuing melodic invention of soloists singing with one voice. Miss Batiashvili produced some lovely, sonorous tones, but they were mostly projected as a solo voice. And on occasion there was a lack of dialogue with the orchestra; Nézet-Séguin conducted it in a rather slow tempo (not really Andante) which failed to realise the onward flow of the music.

The rondo  finale went quite well, although I missed that wonderful sense of dramatic contrast, both in the orchestra and soloist duo, within a relatively relaxed rondo form. Again Miss Batiashvili stood out too much. I had little sense of Tovey’s ‘joyful triumph, bringing this great work to an end’.

Nézet-Séguin gave a sympathetic, if rather subjective, performance of Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony; for a long time erroneously programmed as his First Symphony. Nézet-Séguin delivered  a quite spacious  and relatively relaxed rendition of the first movement. Here I would have welcomed more ‘Allegro’, as the composer requests. Also I was disappointed with the conductor’s decision to exclude the exposition repeat.  The composer even went to the trouble of writing a lovely repeat lead-in with an extra few bars of beautiful music. The joyous coda, went well, with some nice (if at times rather loud ) brass playing. But Nézet-Séguin’s decision to speed up here meant a certain loss of overall symphonic coherence. He realised the lyrical sequences in the ‘Adagio’ quite well, but at times the initial chosen tempo sagged, sounding ponderous and heavy, with too much vibrato. I so missed the sustained lyrical flow heard in recordings of the great Czech conductors with the inimitable Czech Phiharmonic; Talich, Sejna, Ančerl.  Similarly the ‘Furiant’ Presto Scherzo, although rhythmically exact and crisp, lacked a certain ‘furious’ quality implied in the music and perfectly realised by any of the great Czech conductors mentioned above.

The final movement, with its similar sounding opening to the opening of the finale of Brahms’ Second Symphony, started quite well, with some nice phrasing and ‘bouncy’, buoyant inflections and nice woodwind in the development section. But I had little sense of Tovey’s characterisation of the extended coda as the ‘magnificent crown’ to this ‘noble work’. Nézet-Séguin achieved some brilliant playing, but his decision to go faster and faster, toward a kind of ‘grand-stand’ coda, calculated for maximum audience elation, although superficially exciting, sounded meretricious and contrived. The master Czech conductor Kubelik (as with the already mentioned Czech masters) played this coda in a sustained tempo, sounding if anything more exciting, with more trenchant rhythmic accuracy, and that added a crucial sense of symphonic coherence and depth.

Geoff Diggines

Leave a Comment