Concert Review

Kurtág, Janácek & Beethoven. Philharmonia Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi. Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano) RFH 2 March.
This performance will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday 3 March at 7.30 p.m.

Whoever programmed this concert should be shot. Janácek's Capriccio is simply not suited to the acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall and the piece had no contextual reason for being there in the first place; Kurtág's vastly orchestrated Stele might quote Beethoven (the Beethoven of the Seventh symphony) but that is as far as the comparison goes. Someone really ought to have come up with a better programme than this. The weakness of the first half of this concert only made more tangible the lunacy of programming these works with the very fine Eroica that emerged after the interval.

Stele is a piece that out-stays its welcome. It is certainly more bombastic than I remember and this performance of it was wilfully slow. This is the first piece Kurtág wrote that embraces true symphonic form, yet I have rarely heard a orchestra of this size sound so unsymphonic. The expressive gestures were brittle, the slow glissandos and vibratos so impotent. The Wagner tubas might just as well have been on the embankment itself, so ill-balanced was the playing. Similarly, the vast percussion ensemble (cimbalom, piano and upright piano, celesta, vibraphone and marimba) simply failed to interact with whatever else was going on in the orchestra. The complex counterpoint and the density of the figuration were all very understated.

A note in the programme suggests that because this music is funereal in context it links directly to Beethoven's Eroica : such a statement is pure nonsense. The Eroica was, and still is, a revolutionary work; there is nothing in Stele that is remotely challenging. This performance left me strangely unsettled - and profoundly unmoved.

From the vastness of Kurtág's orchestration, Janácek's Capriccio offers us a chamber ensemble of unusual combination: piano, flute (doubling as piccolo), two trumpets, three trombones and tenor tuba. Apart from the fact this piece is more suited to a smaller hall, the performance was an outstanding one. The brass and wind sonorities were gorgeously phrased, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard produced some beautiful playing. The sound he produced from the lower range of the piano was fabulously well toned, even plush, and, although Janácek wrote the piano piece for left hand only, there was a wonderful resonance from all parts of the keyboard. One marvelled too at the virtuosity of the Philharmonia players - Kenneth Smith's beautifully mellow flute, John Jenkin's quite staggering virtuosity in actually getting the rapid triplets at the beginning of the third movement to appear at all, and the delicately played tiny note-values from the trumpets and trombones in the finale. All of this was superbly conducted by an evidently more at ease Dohnányi.

Watching Dohnányi conducting the Eroica I was reminded of Karajan: the gestures, both from the hands and body, with arms outstretched, and fingers pointing downwards, were reminiscent of Karajan's 1960s film of the Beethoven Fifth. It is appropriate, therefore, that this performance of the Eroica should remind me of Karajan's 1944 recording with the Preussiche Staatskapelle Berlin. Like that early recording, this was a performance of some fire, lithe but at the same time muscular, with tempos taken at some speed. The two opening chords in E flat were laid weightily and from then on this performance gripped. There was a palpable suspense in the recapitulation of the opening - the horn giving out its tonic chord as the orchestra echoed on the dominant. The violins, divided left and right, were marvellously fleet and sweet toned. Basses (on the far left) produced some staggeringly vibrant low notes from the depths of the darkest night.

The great Marcia Funebre produced a double fugue of immense proportions: Weingartner's comment that this is an Aeschylean moment was more than confirmed here, the tumult that erupted after the close of the fugue roaring from the lowest depths to touch near catastrophe. The opening of the scherzo was almost whispered, so subtly were the dynamics imposed - the sudden fortissimo blazing loudly. The trio with its three horns was balanced perfectly and played wonderfully. The finale was very fine - flute and clarinet moulded their phrases beautifully, the resumption of the fugue was a moment of divine timing and the coda took us triumphantly to the final peroration.

This was a performance of some stature. It was impressive the way that distinctions were carefully made between the forte and fortissimo passages: the large monolithic blocks of sound that Beethoven created were here born out of phrasing, and not played as isolated tundras. As a performance it developed in a linear fashion, everything part of an integral whole. It was just so unfortunate nothing worthy was placed along side it.

Marc Bridle

Pre-concert Event

Marc Bridle was unable to attend this uncommonly illuminating illustrated talk about Kurtag & Janacek by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, followed by performances of the Janacek's In the Mists and two groups of tiny pieces by Kurtag. We were told that writing one of those was, for Kurtag, as natural as sending a postcard - he lives and thinks in music, and there are hundreds of such short pieces and musical messages. The two composers share a burning intensity, and impulsive contrasts between lyricism and abrupt eruptions. Kurtag draws on simple elements, hesitating between steps, constructing his phrases little by little, blocking, repeating, then moving on further, and we were shown how the beginning of Janacek's In the mists shows similar procedures. One of Kurtag's Splinters builds from one note, to two, four, back to three, as if "learning to speak again in music". Aimard described Stele as having a similar attitude but for a huge orchestra, and his few words gave a way in for a first hearing.

I agree with Marc Bridle that the organisation of the evening was unsatisfactory. Everyone should have heard the talk and piano solos, and it might have been better if the Janacek Concertino had followed them after a short pause, with a daring last part of the evening beginning with the Eroica, saving the enormous extravagance of having employed numerous extras for little more than ten minutes of Kurtag for a dramatic, grandiose finish. That would have given people something really different to think about on the way home!

Peter Grahame Woolf

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