‘A Curate’s Egg’: Langrée Achieves Mixed Results

United StatesUnited States Schnittke, Beethoven, Brahms: Midori, Juliette Kang and Kimberly Fisher (violins), Philadelphia Orchestra / Louis Langrée (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 5.11.2016. (BJ)

Schnittke – Moz-Art à la Haydn

Beethoven – Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61

Brahms – Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73

There were many impressive and enjoyable moments in Louis Langrée’s performance of Brahms’s Second Symphony at his Philadelphia Orchestra debut appearance. The first-movement development section offered sharply delineated instrumental timbres, with some particularly vivid effects in the close imitative writing for trombones and horns. Sonorities were again well realized in the slow movement, and the very end of the symphony exulted in an account of the coda that was at once thrillingly propulsive and magisterially controlled.

Most of these successes, you may notice, came in the more urgently and rhetorically intense passages of the work. But a great deal more of the score consists of music that demands spacious, lyrical flow in its performance. And Langrée’s determination to conduct practically all of the first movement’s 523 measures with a firm visual emphasis on all three of their constituent beats, while ensuring that such passages as the transition leading to the second subject was given with more rhythmic precision than usual, had the inevitable result of robbing those more lyrical sections of their flow.

It must be very hard for orchestra members to convey the intimacy of moments like those for woodwinds and horns toward the end of that movement while, on the podium, the baton is being unleashed with great cartwheeling beats. Maestro Langrée would do well to ponder Sir Adrian Boult’s description of what he witnessed when studying in his youth in Leipzig, where he watched the great Arthur Nikisch at work, gaining the impression that, if the baton had ever once been raised above the level of the conductor’s head, the roof of the concert hall would certainly have fallen in.

And then — I’m sorry, but here I go again — then there is the matter of two Brahms symphonies in successive weeks led by two conductors who think they know more than the poor benighted composer about how a symphonic movement should be structured. Yes: the repeat mark in the first movement was disregarded. The omission may be less dramatically damaging in the Second Symphony than the corresponding one was in Alain Altinoglu’s performance of the First Symphony a week earlier, but it still had a negative effect on Brahms’s well-considered structural planning, and it also meant that we never got to hear the very beautiful 8-measure passage that Brahms took the trouble to compose to lead back to the beginning.

With all its virtues, then, and despite some lovely woodwind playing by Richard Woodhams and others as well as dynamic timpani work by Don Liuzzi, the performance of the symphony could not be regarded as anything more than what in England is called a “curate’s egg”: it was good in parts. What had preceded it before intermission, unfortunately, was markedly worse than that.

The evening had begun with Alfred Schnittke’s Moz-Art à la Haydn, which plays a Haydnesque disappearing trick on some scraps of Mozart. The annotator for Gidon Kremer’s recording of the piece with his Kremerata Baltica observed that “The Mozart fragments are put through the compositional equivalent of a food processor,” achieving “a carnivalesque spirit similar to the intent of the Mozart original.” What I hear instead is a demonstration that, if you take the most coherent of composers and mess his ideas up thoroughly enough, you can produce total incoherence. Admittedly, witnessing the piece live, with Juliette Kang and Kimberly Fisher playing the solo violin parts up a storm, and bringing the proceedings to a close as their colleagues stole offstage and the lights went down, was more fun than just hearing it in a recording. But at the end of the Haydn “Farewell” Symphony there was a strong rationale for the similar departures from the platform—Haydn and his players wanted to bring forcibly to their employer’s attention the fact that they wanted to go home. There seemed no rhyme or reason for Schnittke’s stage-movement shenanigans, which bore no relation to the music, so that the piece simply ended up making me want to go home.

If I had done so, though I would have missed the good bits of the Brahms, I should also have been spared a sadly mediocre traversal of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. It started well enough, with Langrée’s meticulous care for the varying lengths of the notes in the score promising a praiseworthy account of the orchestral music. But while the audience as a whole responded enthusiastically to Midori’s playing of the solo part, to my ears dreary routine—not to mention less than immaculate intonation—dimmed its effect, and the work itself was diminished by the absence of any of the magic it can evoke.

Bernard Jacobson

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