United Kingdom Debussy, Bartok, Bruckner: Antoine Tamestit (viola), London Symphony Orchestra / François-Xavier Roth (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 23.4.2017. (GD)
Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Bartok – Viola Concerto
Bruckner – Symphony No.4 in E-flat Major
It is well known that Bartók died, in 1945, before completing his Viola Concerto. It was eventually completed by his close friend Tibor Derly in 1949. The concerto was commissioned by William Primrose (former lead viola in Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra – and leading violist of his day). Roth negotiated the rhythmic structure and sonata form of the first movement with complete insight and mastery. Its opening ‘dual’ between soloist and timpani demonstrated Tamestit’s superb sense of dialogue and integration. The subtle timpani playing here of Nigel Thomas also deserves mention. The lento second movement was redolent of Bartok’s haunting ‘night music’. The short scherzo contrast and attacca into the final Allegro (replete with Hungarian folk/dance rhythms) was compellingly articulated, revealing both the contrast and unity of the concerto. It is very likely that had Bartók lived the concerto would have been more substantial and complex. But as it stands we can agree with the late, great Pierre Boulez that the concerto in its completed form has a ‘convincing Bartokian tang’. As a fitting encore Tamestit joined up with LSO Leader Roman Simovic in one of Bartók’s brilliant Duos for Two violins.
I was looking forward to Roth’s Bruckner. French conductors, even as comprehensive in repertoire as Pierre Monteux, have traditionally shunned Bruckner – maybe having something to do with a perceived, and negative, Teutonic tone. But now such negative feelings no longer apply. With superb Bruckner performances from the likes of Boulez, Herreweghe and Georges Prêtre, projecting both dramatic fire and a French lucidity and finesse.
The first movement’s basic tempo tonight was quite measured, but it had a sure sense of movement and forward drive. Bruckner’s marking ‘Bewegt’ means ‘with movement’, not ‘lively’ as sometimes translated. And this sense of movement with a measured, steady tempo was well observed. Where Bruckner adds …’not too fast’, ‘nicht zu schnell’ …he certainly does not intend the music to drag at the ponderously slow tempo adopted by some notable dead – and still living – recent conductors. Apart from some uncharacteristic horn fluffs in the pp string tremolando opening, the first movement was superbly navigated with an impressive mid-movement build up in a constellation of minor key motives. The concluding thrilling horn calls in unison (all four) which confirm the home tonic of E-flat major sounded resplendent without ever having the tone of a set piece showing off the horn section, which some maestri cannot resist. As with Klemperer everything cohered to a total symphonic logic.
Roth understands the C minor funeral-like tread of the second movement ‘Andante, quasi allegretto’, with its echoes of Schubert. His tempo was a shade slower than the composer’s suggested marking. But the pace never dragged. The noble E-flat climax was impressive, the LSO’s brass choir well integrated, although strident at times, probably partly due to the restricted Barbican acoustic. The recapitulation and the ‘penserosa’ close was a model of sustained pp string playing, with the ghost of the march theme on timpani so there. The Scherzo, taken at a swifter pace than is usual, was full of bucolic jubilation; with strong echoes of Weber’s Der Freischütz in the horn writing. But Roth also gave it an aptly forceful rhythmic drive, with the Ländler element in the trio idiomatically realised.
The long forty-two bar introduction to the last movement over a dominant B-flat pedal, with horns interjecting their calls from the Scherzo, sounded awe-inspiring at Roth’s sustained tempo with no speeding up for effect. The descending octave leap at the powerful unison climax (the climax of the whole symphony?) seemed to consume the whole hall, despite the acoustic limitations of the Barbican. There were one or two places in the rest of the movement that didn’t quite hang together in terms of structural coherence, emphasising the movement’s episodic tendency. But things picked up with the woodwind and strings many intricate figurations (usually obscured) heard clearly amidst shattering tutti statements. The long finale was made to sound trenchantly coherent, with a blazing coda.
The above-mentioned reservations (also the timpanist’s zeal could have been toned down in some places) in no way seriously compromised the general integrity and excellence of the performance as a whole.
The concert opened with Debussy’s Mallarmé-inspired faune piece. With its muted horns, strings, harp, harmonic fluidity and lengthy modulations between central keys, it has rightly become a modernist classic (which might in itself be something of an oxymoron), as important – maybe more – than Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps. It is amazing to think that it was premiered as early as 1894.
Roth meticulously followed the score. The opening flute solo was very pp. Not sounding so voluptuous as is often the case. He did not rush the diatonic D-flat climax, thereby sounding more effective as more integrated with the whole miraculous design. Debussy’s score has become a kind of celebrity conductor’s favourite, making it sound like a lush orchestral showpiece. This performance was an absolute antidote to this trend, getting more in touch with Debussy’s quite specific intentions.