The Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra Offers a Rather Mixed Experience

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Sibelius: Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra / Yutaka Sado (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 28.2.2017. (CS)

Mendelssohn – Overture, ‘The Hebrides’; Violin Concerto in E minor Op.64
Sibelius – Symphony No.2 in D Op.43

This was the second instalment of the Vienna Tonkünstler Orchestra’s three-concert Cadogan Hall visit, which forms part of the Zurich International Orchestra Series 2016-17.

The orchestra make much of their role as ‘one of Austria’s biggest and most important musical ambassadors’.  They have residencies at the Musikverein Wien, Festspielhaus St. Pölten and in Grafenegg, and perform a wide range of repertory, balancing the classical and contemporary.  At the Grafenegg Festival they have worked with Brett Dean, Krzysztof Penderecki and Jörg Widmann, among others, and the orchestra has commissioned works from Arvo Pärt, Kurt Schwertsik, Friedrich Cerha and Bernd Richard Deutsch.  Moreover, they are happy to explore other genres: the orchestra’s ‘Plugged-In’ series includes jazz and world music.

On this UK tour, however, they seem to be playing things safe.  Dvořák’s final symphony ‘From the New World’, along with classical staples by Mozart and Beethoven opened the series (review); the final concert will also feature firm favourites – Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’, Brahms’ First Symphony and Mozart’s perennially popular Clarinet Concerto (with soloist Emma Johnson).

This second programme similarly comprised crowd-pleasers by Mendelssohn and Sibelius, though there was nothing ‘superficial’ or half-hearted about the Tonskünstler’s intense commitment to this music.  Under the relaxed but firm leadership of conductor Yutaka Sado (a protégé of Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa, and who was appointed Music Director in 2015), the orchestra played with power, precision and assurance, though not always with, I felt, sufficient flexibility and freedom.

The strengths and weaknesses of the Tonkünstler’s playing and approach were already evident in the opening work, Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, and came into sharper focus as the evening progressed.  Technical standards are high: the intonation was pretty flawless; even the most demanding passages did not rock the ensemble’s precision; individual lines are clearly etched so, even in these familiar works one became aware of new details and dialogues within the texture; the sound is weighty and solid, with the brass and timpani making a powerful contribution to the mass.  Yet, this very ‘solidity’ and ‘consistency’ can become a little wearing if unalleviated by flexibility and nuance.  By the end of the evening, I was longing for some respite from the sheer density: for greater dynamic variety (indeed, for a real pianissimo!), less rigidity of phrasing.  The sharply defined individual voices threatened to produce an auditory overload, demanding too much of the ear, forcing the listener to take in too many components at once.  A ‘symphony’ may mean a composition of different elements, but those elements need to be weighed, balanced and blended.  They are not all equal, all of the time.

Mendelssohn’s maritime masterpiece surges with quasi-operatic intensity and the bassoon and low strings evoked a foreboding darkness in the opening bars, although the sound was rather pronounced given the piano marking – there was little sense of mystery and mist.  When this initial arpeggio motif was rhythmically transformed, Sado emphasised its militaristic rhythmic vigour.  The cellos’ soaring theme was sonorous but I’d have liked a more subtle vibrato and nuanced phrasing.  The stormy central passage was full of Beethovenian fury: the timpani roared and thundered – but who would have known that the score indicates rises and falls from pianissimo to fortissimo and back, an effect that conjures menace rather than just aggression.  There were some impressive, tricky unison string passages, and Sado managed the transitions between the sections authoritatively.  But, I longed for a little more ebb and flow; and for the clarinet’s solo motifs to have been given more time and space to re-establish calm, particularly at the haunting close.  At the end, I felt a bit ‘battered’, as if I had been in that skiff that had in 1830 ventured to that awe-inspiring rock formation, Fingal’s Cave.

Violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky, like his accompanists, displayed an admirable technical facility and to this he added an incredibly clear sound blessed with a lovely silky sheen.  Once more like the Tonkünstler, Sitkovetsky’s power and projection were striking – I don’t think I’ve ever heard the harmonics in the first movement cadenza ring so loud, full and true.   Yet, if the opening solo was strong, precise and flawlessly accurate – what stunning octave rises! – there was an absence of expressive flexibility; and, the physical vigour with which the soloist seemed to ‘attack’ the music suggested he was grappling with Tchaikovsky or Brahms, and battling against an orchestral onslaught, rather than easing into Mendelssohn’s ardent but refined passion.  The tempo adopted at the start of this Allegro molto appassionato was fast, which resulted in a disconcertingly exaggerated contrast between the first and second subjects.  Every detail of the orchestral texture was heard but, as suggested above, there were sometimes too many elements pressing urgently for attention.

The cadenza brought welcome idiosyncrasy: there was an almost Bachian manner to the way Sitkovetsky lingered on and swelled the lower notes of the spread arpeggios, emphasizing the harmonic progression as well as the figuration, and the acceleration into the recapitulation was as expertly shaped as the impassioned final coda was technically flawless.

After pulling about the Allegro non troppo with uncharacteristic freedom, Sitkovetsky launched into the final Allegro molto vivace at breakneck speed, which showcased the delicacy and lightness of the scintillatingly fleet passages, but which made the accompanying pizzicati sound snatched and the delightful burbles which Mendelssohn gives to the woodwind almost indistinguishable.  The cellos were likewise denied the opportunity to wallow.

But, it was the Andante which suffered most from the emphasis on power and pace: no one wants to overdose on saccharine excess, but this is a song, and with such relentlessness a singer simply would not have found time to breathe.  Impressed but not charmed was my verdict … until Sitkovetsky offered the Sarabande from Bach’s D minor solo Partita.  Here was the serenity allied with profundity, the peace to balance the intensity, for which I had been longing.

The Tonkünstler’s performance of Sibelius’ Second Symphony was dynamic and absorbing.  At the start of the opening movement a rich full string sound, and propulsive bass pizzicati created energy and expectation.  Throughout the movement there was clarity and colour, but there was a certain ‘sturdiness’, of rhythm and timbre, which suggested that Sado does not have an instinctive feel for the organic way in which Sibelius unfolds and manoeuvres his material.  Reviewing the first of the orchestra’s Cadogan Hall concerts, my colleague Geoff Diggines remarked that Sado’s ‘rendition [of Dvořák’s 9th Symphony] reminded me more of the Czech tradition, of someone who comes from that stretch of the Danube which encompasses both Prague and Budapest’ (review).  I didn’t feel that there was much of Finland evident here.

The opening of the Tempo Andante, ma rubato was a different world though, with wonderfully soft but thoughtful pizzicati from the double basses; cool, sustained pianissimos from the woodwind; and the ominous whisper of the timpani roll.  The movement show-cased the strength and richness of the full brass, blazing gloriously.  Again, however, the development of the material did not feel structurally convincing.  I found the Vivacissimo simply too hasty and too heavy; and if the warm Trio section was more expansive, the return to the Scherzo was an uncomfortably violent wrench.  The orchestra’s forthrightness and confidence were strengths in the final Allegro Moderato where Romantic ampleness and radiance were just what was needed to produce a compelling, joyous close – though not entirely to dispel my feeling that the scale and soul of Sibelius’s musical arguments had remained elusive.

Claire Seymour

Leave a Comment