A Reminder of the Czech Tradition from Yutaka Sado and the Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart Beethoven Dvořák: Angela Hewitt (piano), Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra / Yutaka Sado (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, 26.2.2017. (GD)

Mozart – Overture to Le nozze de Figaro, K492

Beethoven –  Piano Concerto No.4 in G major, Op.58

Dvořák – Symphony No.9 in E minor (‘From the New World’), Op.95

This was the opening concert in a series of three concerts as part of the Zurich International Series. The orchestra goes back to 1919 when Wilhelm Furtwängler was their principal conductor from 1919 to 1923. In the years that followed the orchestra worked with such conductor luminaries as Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Felix Weingartner. Hans Knappertsbusch and Hermann Abendroth. As with other central European orchestras the Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra has a wide-ranging repertoire including centrally the standard classics, many modern works, but also film scores and a cross-over with jazz and world music. The admirable Japanese conductor Yutaka Sado has been the chief conductor of the Tonkünstler Orchestra since 2015.

For me, any performance/recording of Dvořák’s ‘New World’ symphony has to be of the highest quality. As in any orchestral ‘war-horse’ performed/recorded countless times, only an exceptional performance bears listening to. Such works have a tendency to accrete all manner of interpretative ‘traditions’ usually at odds with composer’s written intentions. Sado’s rendition reminded me more of the Czech tradition, of someone who comes from that stretch of the Danube which encompasses both Prague and Budapest. A great Czech conductor like Karel Ančerl comes to mind. However, this does not at all to imply that Sado’s reading was in anyway based on anything other than his own thought-out rendition.

But the way Sado relaxed the tension and tempo very gently for the lyrical first movement second theme in viola and celli to make it sound perfectly natural reminded me of Ančerl, or the great Talich. This was especially the case in the way he encouraged (and obtained from) the flutes and oboes just the right Czech dance rhythmic nuance and inflection in the following G minor section. These totally idiomatic features permeated the whole performance. Sado wisely deployed antiphonal violins throughout. The famous Largo was a model of sustained cantabile playing and movement in which nothing ever dragged. The Molto vivace of the Scherzo was a true molto vivace in which the cross-rhythms in the timpani and woodwind opening figure were managed to perfection: how Sado must have rehearsed the orchestra to achieve this kind of playing! In the Allegro con fuoco finale, Sado allowed every register of what Tovey called this work’s ‘glorious harmonies’ and ‘great melodies’ to emerge, once again in a way which never sounded contrived or mannered as it often does even with the most acclaimed maestros and orchestras. Details often smudged like the last dramatic sforzando chord which dies away into a pianissimo were given just the right pianissimo space; and made all the more touching, even moving! My only quibble is that Sado ignored the first movement repeat, which is clearly marked and expected by the composer.

After this performance I was left wondering at Dvořák’s wonderfully generous outpouring of melodic/harmonic/rhythmic invention all in the most economic symphonic framework. Perhaps such prime homage to the composer constitutes the highest praise for any performance.

Preceding the Dvořák symphony the superb Bach interpreter Angela Hewitt did not disappoint in the Beethoven concerto, going from strength to strength in the first movement exposition with its ornamental flourishes echoed in the orchestra. Particularly impressive was the way in which both soloist and conductor negotiated the B major excursions of the first movement development section. All the way through the first movement there was an impressive sense of dialogue between soloist and conductor. This was made even more resonant in the development section proper, beginning with a D major, where the quite dramatic contrasts are partly resolved in the distant key of C sharp minor. Hewitt played Beethoven’s own cadenza which I prefer.

In the wonderful Andante con moto Sado emphasised the con moto. Again there was an impressive dialogue between soloist and conductor with Hewitt’s wonderfully subtle Orphic responses to the stern declamations of the strings in their low registers. Her transition into the coda was a model of structural awareness where Beethoven has magically metamorphosed the initial E minor into an array of haunting and distant tonalities. My only criticism was a certain lack of rugged thrust in the opening recitative-like Orphic string phrases, a certain trenchant stoicism which Klemperer used to play with such elemental power. But, as if in compensation, Sado perfectly balanced that moment of ‘supreme darkness’ (Tovey) at the end of the movement with ‘sotto voce’ basses intoning the Orphic theme over a sustained and haunting string phrase. The Rondo vivace was rhythmically sharp with the G major, C major juxtapositions skilfully managed. Overall this was a fine performance with Hewitt in excellent form.

As an encore Hewitt gave us some delightful Scarlatti, eloquently phrased and contoured with idiomatic finesse.

The concert opened with a performance of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Overture, which was in general quite good, although it did take a little time to ‘warm up’, so to speak. The busy opening does need a swifter, flowing mercurial touch, which conductors like Fritz Busch and Erich Kleiber used to understand so well. However, Sado did pick-up in the concluding crescendo of themes; a test for any conductor.

As an encore Sado played the Andante Cantabile from Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No.1 (arranged for full strings) based on a very Slavic sounding Russian folksong. The strings of the Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra captured the Russian/Slavic mood of poignant melancholy to perfection.

Geoff Diggines

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