Profoundly moving Berg and Schubert with Viennese Gemütlichkeit from Kavakos, Rattle and the LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Berg and Schubert: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Performance from 7.1.2021 at LSO St Luke’s, London, livestreamed (directed by Matt Parkin) on 21.1.2021. (JPr)

Leonidas Kavakos (violin) and Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

Berg – Violin Concerto

Schubert – Symphony No.9, D944, ‘The Great’ (1825, revised 1826)

Greek-born violinist Leonidas Kavados introduced this concert by saying how he was ‘delighted that today’s concert with the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle is dedicated to the Greek Revolution and British Philhellenism. Britain’s contribution to the Greek War of Independence was decisive. The Bicentennial Initiative 1821-2021 in which leading Greek foundations and institutions are participating, honours the heroes – and those who supported them in their fight towards freedom – with the organisation of cultural activities like today’s concert which is supported generously and sponsored by the National Bank of Greece. I want to wish everyone a very Happy New Year and may the arts and science – two of the greatest human achievements – help us all heal the wounds that last year has brought the world.’ Worthy sentiments in many ways and a reminder of what European countries can achieve when they work together. The music began with the orchestra standing for the rousing Greek national anthem, ‘Hýmnos is tin Eleftherían’ (‘Hymn to Liberty’).

With this concert Rattle began a long goodbye to the LSO as he will leave in 2023 to become Chief Conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich, as successor to the late Mariss Jansons. There are probably several contributing factors to his decision – not least the perilous position of the arts in this country – but Rattle lives with his family in Berlin so the move back to his beloved Germany seems a sensible one.

I very much enjoyed the presentation of this concert and watching Rattle conduct in-the-round at the centre of the intimate LSO St Luke’s. Of course, it was depressing to see the obligatory masks being worn, the social distancing, and Covid protection screens, as the constant reminder of the world we currently live in. (Obviously, those musicians blowing into their instruments were freed of their masks; apart that was from principal bassoonist Rachel Gough who intriguingly played through hers.) Truthfully, I must admit I was able to concentrate more on the music than I would have done had I heard it ‘live’ in the Barbican Hall and, personally, I am glad that livestreaming is here to stay for forever (probably?) and certainly long after opera houses, concert halls, and theatres might get back to some kind of ‘normal’ this autumn.

Preceding Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony was Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, which is Mahlerian in its plaintiveness and angst, chiefly because of a family connection to his widow Alma. Berg wrote his Violin Concerto – subtitled ‘To the memory of an angel’ – as a memorial to her daughter Manon, the child of Alma’s later marriage to Walter Gropius, who died because of polio at 18. Thanks to Paul Griffiths’s programme note on the LSO website we learn how ‘More than one angel, however, sings wordlessly in Berg’s music. Telling the story of Alma’s daughter, Berg remembered his own child, born of his teenage liaison with a kitchen maid at his family’s summer place in Carinthia. At the same time, the concerto draws electricity from his passionate involvement with the sister of Alma Mahler’s third husband (the writer Franz Werfel): Hanna Fuchs-Robettin as she then was, married to a businessman and living in Prague. Her initials and the composer’s are musically woven into the score, as are numbers Berg associated with each of them’ and Griffiths concludes how ‘The calamity that overtakes the concerto is partly that of the death of an angelic adolescent, partly that of an impossible love.’

Berg died shortly after completing the work, and the premiere performance of the Violin Concerto in 1936 was as much a memorial to Berg as to that ‘memory of an angel’. The musical language of Berg and his contemporaries can be difficult for even the most seasoned listeners of classical music, nevertheless I doubt very much if anyone could fail to be moved by what is essentially a requiem ohne Worte (without words). The work is based on a tone row; however, Berg adds to the mix fragments from an Austrian folk song and a Bach chorale.

Kavakos appeared undaunted by the work’s numerous musical challenges and often seemed to be simply living it. He began softly – almost mournfully – and there was the evidence right from the start of the Kavakos’s great control and clarity. During the first movement’s more agitated section there is more than a hint of Stravinsky in the flutes and when Berg’s music is at its most elegiac isn’t that the posthorn from Mahler’s Third Symphony we hear? Berg takes the violinist to near the upper limit of the instrument’s range before its contribution occasionally gets embraced by the sound of the well-spaced LSO strings. The first movement is believed to be about life, whilst the second one is about death and transfiguration and begins with an ominous orchestral tutti. From Kavakos – who was now playing with febrile energy – there were slashing chords, and I admired the cadenza-like passages in the Allegro with pizzicato from his left hand over a legato line. Berg’s music here sounds schizophrenic and veers between dramatic intensity and consolation and Rattle – despite his head being in the score – consummately guided the LSO through to the catharsis which is brought about by the Bach Chorale ‘Es ist genug’ quoted in the finale. Together with Kavakos, Rattle and his accomplished musicians, uncovered much musical detail along the way and as a result it was all quite profoundly moving.

Sir Simon Rattle (conductor) and London Symphony Orchestra

More useful information in online notes from Stephen Johnson was how Schubert’s ‘Great’ Symphony ‘is dominated by images of physical movement: the muscular, striding theme of the first movement; the exuberant waltz-tunes of the Scherzo; the hurtling vitality of the Finale – even the ‘slow’ second movement is carried forward by a march-like tread, introduced on the strings before the oboe sounds the leading melody […] an invigorating walking regime, a delight in nature and thoughts of God inspired by sublime landscapes in the summer of 1825 – all of this is implicit in the “Great” C major Symphony’. Schubert extensively revised the score in 1826 and presented it to the Vienna Philharmonic Society who basically ignored the symphony and the composer never heard the work performed in a public concert. It was only in March 1839 – eleven years after Schubert’s death – that Mendelssohn conducted it at the Leipzig Gewandhaus.

Indeed, the first movement’s frequently jaunty music does create a pastoral scene with people traipsing over hill and dale. The Andante con moto is initially dance-like before it takes a more ominous turn and some pizzicato strings usher in a more contemplative air. The Scherzo and Trio is sunny, lively, and spirited and ‘an everyday story of country folk’. With its extended sonata form the Finale builds right from the marching start, through the tribute paid to Beethoven (by including a quote from the finale of his Ninth Symphony), to the ecstatic conclusion.

Rattle – now conducting without a score – inspired a mellow reading of a symphony that is more enjoyable to listening to than most. It had an idiomatic Gemütlichkeit that avoided any longueurs and as a result there was no loss of cogency and drive in a perfectly measured performance replete with textual detail and colour. The LSO played superbly with many virtuosic contributions supporting the sonority and timbral richness of the strings. The longer Schubert’s ‘Great’ goes on the more it seems to be an oboe concerto and the orchestra’s MVP (most valuable player) throughout – if I am allowed – was the principal oboe Juliana Koch whose enthusiastic playing nearly lifted her from her seat in the Finale. She was often heard in tandem with Chris Richards’s eloquent clarinet.

At the very end of this wonderful concert the two silently bows from all concerned into the camera might haunt your  dreams for some time to come, let’s hope for better times again soon!

Jim Pritchard

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