United Kingdom Schumann, Detlev Glanert, Beethoven: Hong Xu (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Markus Stenz (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 21.02.16 (GD)m
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
Detlev Glanert: Frenesia, UK premiere
Beethoven: Symphony No 5 in C minor, Op. 67
From the energetic opening of the Schumann Concerto, with its contrasting, songful main theme on plangent oboe (gloriously played and shaped tonight) Stenz showed himself to be a most distinctive conductor and sympathetic accompanist. Although he deployed some levels of rubato they never intruded on the organic flow of the music. And Stenz was scrupulous in matters of rhythm, with the march-like 2/4 theme, sharply punctuated. But from the soloist’s opening arresting descending flourishes (actually the movement’s prime rhythmic invention) Hong Xu failed to make much effect or much impact. He played everything quite accurately, and mostly kept in time with the conductor, but overall I had the impression of soloist accompanying the conductor, rather than the conductor accompanying the soloist. Of course Schumann’s wonderful concerto is not just pianistic in the virtuoso sense, there should be a real dialogue between conductor and soloist, but, alas, I heard little dialogue from the soloist here. Also Xu was short on lyrical/dramatic contrast; the first movement cadenza sounded more like a rehearsal run through, whereas with pianists like Maria João Pires, and more recently Jonathan Biss, all of Schumann’s invention, poetry, joy, introspection, energy and song is made to register in wonderful abundance. With really great performances we have the sense that the soloist has an intimate knowledge of the composer’s great solo piano works like Kreisleriana, the Davidsbündlertånze, the Fantasy in C, to name name just a few.
In the beautifully economic F major Intermezzo the performance was distinguished by some glowingly expressive, songful cello lines in the mid-section, never sounding over-expressive. The Allegro vivace A major finale went well for the most part; its initial buoyant 3/3 flow sounded both resilient and assured. My criticism here was that the second subject, overlaid with with a 3/3 rhythmic pattern (the famous Deux temps section) didn’t quite catch the cross-rhythms between soloist and conductor, superbly fashioned in the classic recording with Richter and the great, but underrated, Witold Rowicki. Stenz conducted the A minor fugato section with great finesse and precision, and the conclusion was brought to its jubilant coda, with its ‘irresistible light touch’ (Tovey). With a more idiomatic soloist this performance would have been truly compelling, coming close to the very essence of Schumann’s truly astounding concerto.
German composer Detlev Glanert composed Frenesia for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, of which he has been Composer in Residence for the last ten years. It is no doubt due in part to his close relation with this great orchestra that Glanert has developed such a mastery of huge orchestral forces as heard tonight. The word Frenesia, from the Italian, variously means: frenzy, excitement, urge, craving panic. Glanert composed the work to coincide with Richard Strauss’s sesquicenternnial (150th Anniversary) in 2014. But it is in no way a homage to Strauss. it merely takes the rather overloaded opening of Ein Heldenleben as a musical metaphor for a surging orchestral energy. One could even say that it works as a Destruktion (Heidegger’s Abbau – to unbuild, to undo) of Strauss’s work. In more general terms, as tonight’s programme note writer suggests, it is not so much a focused musical critique of Heldenleben (although in parts it could be read as such), as ‘anti-Heldenleben in the sense of ‘being against the traditional Romantic view of grand heroism – no longer possible after the historic events leading to 1945’. And as Adorno knew well, in the German context this is all the more resonant: ‘After Auschwitz is it possible to write poetry?’ And this is not to mention Richard Strauss’s actual complicity in the ethics, or anti-ethics of Hitler’s Reich. In Frenesia the pompous opening theme of Heldenleben is only heard for a few bars before we are jolted into an entirely different sound-scape of crashing tutti dissonances and ‘frenetic’ rhythmic inventions, led by the gargantuan percussion section. In the middle-section, where the mood is less loud, but no less intense and alienated, we hear some distant strains of what could be the sentimental ‘Love music’ of Heldenleben on solo violin. This is what Glanert terms musica povera where the music is ‘deconstructed’ into small cells which however can gain in intensity to either develop or decline the works main themes.
In many ways Frenesia is cast in quasi-aleatoric form giving the impression of discontinuity and fragmentation. In fact, however, it deploys several themes variously morphed, re-morphed and thrown around the various sections of the orchestra like a disruptive round punctuated by sharp brass accents and an array of percussion in poly-rhythmic ostinato constellations all cohering to several points of thematic unity, or a semblance of unity, in the undecided (more in the Derridean sense of ‘undecidability’), or partly resolved coda. Stenz conducted with meticulous attention to detail in the Boulez manner, although he used a stick (alien to Boulez) to indicate and project changing rhythms and time signatures. Stenz had obviously rehearsed the BBC orchestra meticulously. After the performance the composer was beckoned by Stenz to the stage to share the applause, which he did in a slightly shy, embarrassed manner.
To close the concert Stenz delivered a full-toned dramatic rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He plunged us directly into first movement with the famous arresting four-note figure and sustained the tempo and sense of Allegro con brio throughout the movement. He never fell into the notorious interpretive pitfalls this masterpiece presents; the famous, and disputed bassoon statement of the opening four bars now in C major just before the coda were intoned with a forward sounding bassoon, as is now the fashion in most ‘period’ performances. The second movement Andante co moto started with a beautiful flowing cantabile, although Stenz on several occasions made some rather fussy and unnecessary Ritenutos holding up the natural con moto flow of the movement. But the more arresting passages in C major with trumpets and drums (Tovey’s ‘blaze of triumph’) were never overdone, never given a ponderous rhetorical edge, and thus sounding all the more contrasted and compelling. Stenz invested great vigour into the Scherzo. The C major Trio, a fugato in the basses and celli, had remarkable clarity, each strand absolutely audible. The triumphal tread of the scherzo here was inflected with great rhythmical accuracy; the hard timpani sticks sharply punctuating and cutting through the orchestral texture. The sempre pp bridge transition leading to the finale was compellingly sustained, those timpani taps always audible as were the accompanying pp figures in celli and basses, so often obscured. And Stenz refrained from beginning any kind of crescendo until Beethoven asks for it – eight bars before the ‘Finale’ proper bursts out with its C major ‘Allegro’. The Finale itself had tremendous energy and power without ever sounding inflated, as it often does. With accurately gauged timing he registered the musical significance of those last twenty-four bars in C major; they ceased to be meaningless ‘curtain-lowering chords’ but in a revealing way became an essential part of the pattern of the whole work.
Stenz did not deploy any ‘period instruments apart from hard timpani sticks. But the performance had a ‘period’ feel, with a minimum of vibrato. He played the standard repeats except the Scherzo repeat (rarely observed). It is a pity that he chose to compromise the flow of the second movement Andante con moto with irritating ‘ritenutos’. And why did he opt for non antiphonal violins, so essential here? Apart from these criticisms this was as powerful and dramatic a Beethoven 5 as I have heard in concert for years.