United Kingdom Beethoven, R. Strauss: Augustin Hadelich (violin), Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Kirill Karabits (conductor), The Anvil, Basingstoke, 17.1.2019. (CS)
Beethoven – Violin Concerto in D major Op.61
R. Strauss – Symphonia Domestica Op.53
Stefan Herheim’s production of The Queen of Spades, which is currently gracing the Covent Garden stage, posits the idea that Tchaikovsky’s opera is inseparable from his life. Whatever the merits or otherwise of Herheim’s execution of this idea, it is surely the case that the frames of art and life frequently breach each other, in ways which make form and content difficult for the artist to control, and for audiences to acknowledge or accept. This is the essential message and problem of Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts: the mirrored ‘scarps, orts and fragments’ which end Miss La Trobe’s pageant, trouble her audience – ‘“What’s the notion? Anything that’s bright enough, presumably, to reflect ourselves?”’
Richard Strauss doesn’t seem to have had the same anxieties about the overlap between the aesthetic and the autobiographical: when questioned about the appropriateness of the title of Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) he famously responded, ‘I don’t see why I should not write a symphony about myself. I find myself quite as interesting as Napoleon or Alexander.’ Four years later he began work on his Symphonia Domestica, a sort of symphony à clef presenting musical portraits of two parents’ – that is his own and his wife Paulina’s – self-indulgent joy at their child’s play and mischief, and their own erotic bliss.
There is a danger that the Symphonia Domestica can sprawl and wander – as Miss Trobe’s actors roam uncertainly around the garden, ‘reluctant to go’: ‘How to make an end?’ But Kirill Karabits kept a fairly tight rein on the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra – his body and gestures seem supported by iron, tempered with the flexibility of steel – all the while permitting them to communicate the personal and dramatic qualities of the work. The first section, which delineates the motivic and instrumental means by which character and relationship will be defined, was light-spirited and finely sketched. It seemed, and the promise was fulfilled, that Karabits would find a way to assimilate the abstract symphonic development with the programmatic and sometimes trivial.
Seven chimes of the clock might be bearable – after all, music articulates, and exists only in, time – but the musical representation of a baby being adored by its doting relatives, or of its gurgles at bath-time might be pushing the audience’s patience to the limit. That Karabits managed to prioritise the symphonic form over autobiographical self-indulgence is greatly to his, and the BSO’s, credit. Yes, the orgasmic fulfilment of the final section is repetitive and over-long, but Karabits kept things moving and didn’t allow the music to sink under the weight of Strauss’s ego, all the while giving his brass section freedom to enjoy themselves. And, there was transparency too – in the Lullaby and subsequent woodwind quartet; similarly, the fugue was coherent and its energy focused. The BSO did not seem rattled by the technical and structural challenges, and the section leaders – violinist Amyn Merchant, and cellist Jesper Svedberg – confidently articulated the narrative in their solos. The brass, forgivably, enjoyed the self-glorification of the close.
If live performances of Strauss’s homage to married bliss are somewhat rare in the UK, then the same might be said for performances by violinist Augustin Hadelich, much of whose time is spent in the US and Germany. But, for this listener, every performance by Hadelich is worth making an effort to seek out, whether that be in the capital or further afield. On this occasion, Hadelich’s poised, patrician performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra brought warmth and joy to a cold January evening visit in Basingstoke.
The Concerto was not preceded by an orchestral overture, but Beethoven does begin the exposition with a lengthy orchestral introduction to the work’s four principal themes. And, in any case, the audience – fairly small but very attentive – at The Anvil seemed in no need of a ‘warm-up’ to help them settle into their seats. On this occasion, the instrumental preface was surprisingly gentle, Karabits adopting a fairly leisurely tempo and drawing soft-edged playing from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The opening timpani strokes brushed assuredly but lightly, and the woodwind scalic theme they initiated really was dolce and piano – seeming to offer little hint of the drama to come. But, in fact, the relative restraint and relaxation made the dramatic gestures more telling: one sat up when the violins’ quiet knocking was answered by suddenly assertive celli, or when a tutti fortissimo burst brightly forth. Karabits shaped the orchestra’s invitation to the soloist brilliantly: there was fluency and forward movement, and delicate nuances without undue extravagance.
In letting the music speak for itself, Karabits and the BSO were following the example of their soloist, whose entry was so pure and fresh, the intonation so centred, that it seemed that here was the Romantics’ ideal of absolute Beauty – the nightingale’s song. Hadelich’s fingering of the climbing octaves looked somewhat unusual, but it produced a lyrical stream that was sustained throughout the Concerto.
The Anvil is a fairly intimate venue, of narrow width even if the concert hall stretches far back, and Hadelich’s projection of sound was strong and captivating; he never had to work hard to make his song reach out, and for the more rhetorical gestures, he delved into his bright compact sound to make his E string ring. Karabits encouraged great sensitivity from the BSO, combining well-defined eloquence with judicious foregrounding; one sensed that the players were learning something new about this Concerto, as were we. He and Hadelich seemed to share an appreciation of the architecture of this long and formally complex movement. One particularly impressive moment came in the retransition to the recapitulation; the violin’s chromatic triplet climb soared above the strings’ dominant pedal, quiet pizzicato imitations of the timpani motif heralding a glorious return of the octave arpeggios. It felt so ‘right’.
Hadelich performed Kreisler’s cadenza, fittingly so, for his sweet sound brings to mind the refinement of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of violinists at the turn of the 20th century. Again, we heard those rising octaves, as if this could be the only way to begin to speak through music, a gesture at the core of musical language and structure. The counterpoint between different themes, as Hadelich essentially accompanied himself, was remarkable for the clarity of voicing and evenness of line – and made me want to hear Hadelich play unaccompanied Bach. This was no empty show of virtuosity, rather a musical exploration of the movement’s key ideas in a manner simultaneously expansive and spontaneous. The gentle trills of the cadence led back to a reprise of the second theme, and as the tempo relaxed Hadelich climbed with sonorous care up the G-string, making us wait, listen, be patient for the gradual sense of growing strength and fulfilment towards close.
Because of the spacious gentility of the first movement, the Larghetto did not perhaps present as strikingly expressive a contrast as is customary, but who could complain when the bird ascended to the stratosphere like Shelley’s skylark: ‘The blue deep thou wingest,/ And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.’ This really was pure poetry, Hadelich’s ‘rain of melody’ seeming to emanate from the heavens. But, that’s not to suggest that this was a faceless shower of silver and gold; after the shining rises to the tenuto peaks, the solo violin elaborates the descending scale, and most violinists will alternate up and down bows for each stroke. But, Hadelich – here and in the recapitulation – re-took the bow for the first of the three descending turn-like motifs, using an up bow only for the final beat to smooth his way into the expansive diminutions which follow. It’s a small, perhaps insignificant detail, but it suggests deep thought and musical intelligence. The elaborateness of the slow movement can cause it to ‘slump’ but one could see and sense Karabits using his back and shoulders to lift his orchestra forwards: there was weight and sobriety to their tone but never heaviness.
We came back down to earth for the Rondo in which the ritornello theme, while not in any way ‘rustic’, was lithe and rhythmically flexible, and sparkled with a carefree joie de vivre. On the very few occasions when Hadelich ‘dug in’ to the G-string it imbued the music with a genuine humanity. I defy anyone not to feel cheerful when listening to Hadelich’s performance: there was such freedom of spirit in even the smallest details, such as the left-hand pizzicatos which herald the reprise of a principal theme. Again, Kreisler provided the cadenza: and, again, we were offered breathtakingly beautiful richness and assurance – all of which seemed to be achieved by using just the lowest four or five inches of bow nearest the heel. It might be my ‘job’ to put such effects into words, but on this occasion anything ‘technical’ seems inadequate, and I can’t find a verbal-literary image to do Hadelich’s poetry justice.
One should not, though, neglect the contribution made by the BSO; in the Rondo, light-spirited vivacity was balanced with telling individual gesture, and there was much notable playing not least from the bassoons, clarinets and horns. The audience seemed spellbound: at least, nobody coughed, fidgeted, shuffled. Hadelich’s own immersion in the music was hypnotic.
This was a Classical, rather than Romantic account; no battles between the Romantic ego and the masses, no struggles with the sublime. It simply was sublime: strength allied with serenity. Hadelich’s encore was Paganini’s sixteenth Caprice. Was it necessary? Probably not. Did it destroy the Classical gallantry? Well, it may have had the potential to so do. But, the agility required to essay the constant string-leaping and to negotiate the ceaseless stream of notes was put in the service of music, rooted to a structure determined and articulated by the voice-leading of a sounding or implied bass line. And, thus, while we looked ahead to egoistic bravura of Romanticism, we also looked back to Bach, by way of Kreisler’s cadenzas.
Standing on a chilly platform at Basingstoke station, awaiting a late-night train back to London, I felt myself glowing with the joy and warmth of Hadelich’s playing. One could almost feel that, in these troubled and troubling times, all was right with the world.