Quite Outstanding Performances of Beethoven and Franck

AustriaAustria Beethoven and Franck: Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Vienna Symphony Orchestra / Jakub Hrůša (director). Grosser Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna, 6.6.2017. (MB)

Beethoven – Violin Concerto in D major Op.61
Franck – Symphony in D minor

What a wonderful surprise! It was not that I had not expected something good; I should hardly have dragged myself to another Beethoven Violin Concerto if not, still less to a performance of a symphony about which I felt decidedly ambivalent (if not nearly so hostile as many seem to). Frank Peter Zimmermann had given, with Bernard Haitink and the LSO, what had been probably the best performance of the concerto that I had ever heard in concert. Moreover, Jakob Hrůša had impressed me last year in Glyndebourne’s Cunning Little Vixen, and I had heard good things about him from others too. Nevertheless, to hear a performance that exceeded my memories of the Haitink, not least on account of a truly astonishing contribution from the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and an account of Franck’s D minor Symphony that had me wondering, at least until the finale, whether all my doubts concerning the work had been misplaced, came as significantly more than I might dared have hope.

The first movement of the Beethoven was taken swiftly, but never harried (not unlike, indeed, Zimmermann’s performance with Haitink, so I presume this must be his concept). What struck me immediately was the cultivated sound Hrůša drew from the VSO; I really do not think I am merely lapsing into some sort of ‘national’ stereotype when I say that the sound reminded me of the Czech Philharmonic in its heyday, or indeed one of Rafael Kubelík’s bands. There was something Bohemian, to be sure, about the character of the orchestral playing, at least as I heard it; it was certainly not sweetly Viennese, to resort to another caricature. The other striking, indeed surprising, thing about the opening ritornello was Zimmermann’s playing along for parts of it; I am not quite sure why, but it did not detract from his official entry, since one never heard him individually. When that did come, his playing offered a combination of the best of ‘old school’ tone with a variegation that one does not always associate, rightly or wrongly, with some of those hallowed performances of old. A simple – or not so simple – scale could encompass great musical variety, with the emphasis on ‘musical’; this was not variety, nor was it difference, for the sake of it. And all the time, Hrůša emphasised, subtly yet unquestionably, the dynamic process of Beethoven’s motivic working, its generative quality. Woodland woodwind sounded heartbreakingly beautiful; one could almost see Beethoven on one of his countryside walks, hear what he heard, transmuted into gold. Zimmermann’s cadenza did more or less what one would have expected it to do, if not quite always in the way one would have expected: different again, then, without that difference being for its own sake. A coda as autumnal as Brahms offered one brief, final blaze; as so often, at the close, Beethoven says just enough, no more than that.

The slow movement proved the most tender of songs, with multiple soloists, the VSO wind singing with just as great distinction as Zimmermann, bassoon and horns as ravishingly beautiful as any of those instruments more accustomed to the soloistic limelight. If anything, I think these instrumentalists incited Zimmermann to still greater heights. ‘Rapt’ is doubtless a word overused, not least by me, but it seems apt, as it were, here. A masterly transition to the finale was Zimmermann’s doing, of course, but the broader character of the finale was again as much Hrůša’s and the orchestra’s doing as Zimmermann’s. Impish, exhilarating playing had one’s ears on tenterhooks, in the best way. Once again, Hrůša’s subtle yet sure tracing of Beethoven’s motivic dynamism provided the basis for everything else that ensued.

The opening figure of Franck’s D minor Symphony sounded full of Lisztian promise, with lower string tone simply to die for. The violins’ response proved to be of equal distinction, as indeed soon was that of the entire orchestra. Once again, the playing of the VSO, and Hrůša’s conducting sounded – however lame this might sound on the page – as if it were imbued with the very spirit of music. Even when the first movement were driven hard, as sometimes it was, it grew out of what had gone before; indeed, it made me wonder what Wagner from these forces might sound like (not something I say lightly). Even the frankly vulgar passages in Franck’s score made me smile, even shiver a little, rather than frown. This was certainly a superior performance in every way to the over-praised recordings from Leonard Bernstein (which may have done a great deal to put me off the work). For there was delicacy, even tenderness, to be heard too, in a performance that at the very least seemed to reach for Lisztian heights. I do not think, indeed, that I have heard a performance, whether in the concert hall or even on record, in which the music had so clearly been internalised by conductor and orchestra (well, perhaps, Klemperer, but otherwise…)

The Allegretto was inexorable, yes, but charming too, with a wealth of orchestral colour that had me think several times of Berlioz. I was able by now simply to sit back and enjoy, quite convinced that any previous fault had lain with me, not with the work. If I still did not feel that the finale quite came off, it came closer than I could recall, uniting tendencies, not just material, from both previous movements. It wore its workings on its sleeve, of course, but does not Berg’s music, or Stravinsky’s, for that matter, too? There was much, then, for me to think about after the event, even more for me to relish in the moment. This was, in summary, a quite outstanding concert.

Mark Berry

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