An Impressive Concert from the Bruckner Orchester Linz

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gluck, Mozart, Bruckner: Melvyn Tan (piano), Bruckner Orchester Linz / Dennis Russell (conductor), Cadogan Hal, 21.4.2016. (GD)

Gluck: Overture Iphigenie en Aulide

Mozart: Piano Concerto in A major No.23 K 488

Bruckner: Symphony No.6 in A major

One could say that all of Mozart’s concerti respond well to ‘period’ performance. But K488 is perhaps a special candidate here. The concerto has suffered more from all kinds of mannerisms and distortions mostly emanating from the 19th century. One particular misconception was to cast a veil, a kind of transcendental aura, around the concerto. Amazingly this still persists today. A very recent recording from a very distinguished pianist directing from the keyboard, subsumed the whole concerto into a kind of dreamy haze of ersatz ‘beauty’. Also the concerto is often played too slowly, almost dragging, the second, ‘slow movement’ often taken at a ludicrously slow tempo. Part of the reason for this is that the movement is marked ‘Adagio’. Now there is some controversy here. Earlier editions gave the tempo marking as ‘Andante’. But now textual ‘authenticity’ tells us that the correct tempo should be ‘Adagio’. If this is indeed the case, it is the only ‘Adagio’ marking in all of Mozart’s piano concerti. It does  seem strange that Mozart would confine an adagio marking to this concerto? But I have noticed that other recent ‘period’ performance recordings have reverted to the ‘Andante’ marking.  Of course an excellent Mozartian like Clara Haskil, Annie Fischer, Richard Goode, Pollini and tonight’s Melvyn Tan will acknowledge the gravitas needed  to savour the emotional pathos of this music without sacrificing the ongoing flow by taking a too portentious tempo. In other words, all these, and other pianists, will know that even if the correct tempo is ‘Adagio’, a Mozart adagio is not like an adagio by Brahms.

Melvyn Tan is a pianist who projects a wonderful sense of freedom, drama and elegance, whilst at the same time crucially incorporating the basic structural cohesion of the work. I am pleased to note that Dennis Russell Davies and the superb Linz Bruckner Orchester proved to be an excellent accompanist to Tan; there was a real sense of rapport and dialogue. To take just one example, from the ‘Allegro’ first movement, with the perky dotted-note rhythms of the second subject. Here one could hear quite clearly the interplay between soloist and woodwinds and strings, all most delicately balanced.  The second movement is in F sharp minor.

Both soloist and conductor perfectly delineated the lilting ‘siciliano rhythm’ throughout.  Even the juxtapositions into a more major key (A major) lightness, are subtended by darker harmonic registers, reminding one of Donna Elvira’s simple affection being pulled back into the profane power of Don Giovanni. The magnificent repeated thythmic fanfares which end the movement were driven home impressively.

Tan demonstrated his ability to really make the contrasts in the chromatic suspensions and unexpected harmonies tell. His lead back to the tonic of A major in the coda was a model of the most subtle realisation of poetic transition with that wonderful sense of closure in the clarinet part. He launched into the rondo finale with the greatest agility and rhythmic buoyancy, sounding like a scene from opera buffa. Of course Mozart was working on Figaro at the time. Again he was particularly brilliant in his inflections, denoting the sharp contrasts between D major and F sharp minor in the middle section; a moment of rhythmic uncertainty did not seriously impede on the general excellence. The Linz orchestra was a match for any ‘period’ ensemble in its eloquent phrasing and finesse in terms of unity and instrumental clarity, especially in the woodwinds.

Russell Davies’s  reading of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony (the composer’s most ‘complete’ symphony in terms of editorial complications, completed as composed) was compellingly impressive. The first movement opened with a well articulated initial rhythmic motive in the strings. And the ominous bass theme which stirs in a modulated A major (what Tovey aptly called the ‘Leviathan’ theme) had a dark glow thanks to the generally excellently resonant intonation of the Linz Orchestra’s double-basses. One detail Russell Davies managed to perfection was the off beat, unevenly divided inflection in the first half of the initial rhythmic unit, overlooked by many conductors.   Throughout the tonal, rhythmic shifts/transitions of the splendidly affirmative first movement,  Russell Davies maintained a  steady and resilient tempo structure.   The E major constellations of the second subject and its various crescendos and diminuendos were masterfully traversed. The strings (violins and violas in particular) were  always together  with a fitting sense of heroic forward motion. (Curiously Russell Davies opted for non-antiphonal violins.)  The tonal contrast of the splendidly ‘gauche’ horn modulations just before the beginning of the main development section, had an ominous if bucolic resonance. And what horn playing – the equal of the great Vienna Phiharmonic! The great A major build-up of the magnificent brass-led chorale just before the coda, was  superbly balanced and contoured. The subtending harmonic/tonal modulations here were handled with assured confidence and tonal finesse, evincing all the  ‘sparkle’ and auratic wonder of Tovey’s ‘Homeric seas’.

The wonderful adagio, marked ‘very solemn’, started with an impressive and rich sonority in the A minor modulated basses.  As the movement progressed the initial solemn ‘adagio’ surged forward, with never a hint of dragging, to the radiant  C major climax.The C minor funeral march section, combined with A flat, had all the essential gravitas heard from conductors like Klemperer and Wand. In the coda Russell Davies  registered all the nuances of  resignation and stoical pathos. Bruckner’s explicit instruction ‘Nicht schnell’ ‘not fast’, was impressively sustained in this A minor/A major scherzo. The level of  thrust (bewegt), similar to Klemperer. In its sustained and grim energy the sense of what  Tovey referred to as the movement’s mood of ‘Walpurgisnacht’ was powerfully realised. And the wonderfully naive, rustic trio section, with its ‘plumpus denken’ pizzicato chords and heavy horn accents was inflected to make an impressive contrast to the darker elements of the ‘scherzo’, here having little sense of a joke!

As in many of Bruckner’s symphonies, the coda of the sixth is the least convincing in structural terms. From its A minor initiation theme in the ‘Phrygian’ mode to its blazing A major coda, this finale needs a sympathetic and experienced Bruckner conductor to ensure that all its themes (really a splendid Brucknerian riot of  thematic invention) hang together. All this was compellingly delivered by Russell Davies and the Bruckner Linz orchestra.  The  lyrical F major second theme made a natural sounding contrast to the initial jagged energy of the opening section.  Also, the various chorale motives that  punctuate the movement all fell in line with the overall design;. The introduction of the ‘non confundar’ theme from the ‘Te deum’ at the start of the development, was splendidly punctuated without sounding detached.  And the stalking bass/brass ruminations in march like rhythm, before the initiation of the coda, registered well at a slightly slower tempo.  The blazing A major of the coda, grafted by the symphony’s opening rhythm, intoned a noble and triumphant symphonic resolution.

This compelling concert opened with Gluck’s ‘grand and sombre’ overture Iphigenie en Aulide from Racine’s tragedy based on the Euripides tragedy from 405 BC. Gluck composed his opera for Paris 1774. But Wagner revised the whole opera for a performance in Dresden 1847. Fabled conductors from the past like Toscanini and Klemperer used to play it regularly, but is seldom played in its Wagner/overture form today. So it was good to hear it tonight. Russell Davies’s performance certainly lacked the monumental and noble gravitas of Toscanini and Klemperer, but in its swiftness (probably closer to what Gluck would have expected) and sharpness, with no loss of dramatic impetus, the overture made for an admirable prelude for what was to come.

Geoff Diggines


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