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S & H Concert Review

Stravinsky, Mozart, Beethoven, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Leif Ove Andsnes (pf), Daniel Harding, Barbican Centre, 27th March, 2003 (AR)

Igor Stravinsky’s Apollon musagete was commissioned by Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in 1927 and premiered on June 12, 1928 by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, with Stravinsky himself conducting. In stark contrast to the earthen, expressionist colours of the Rite of Spring, Apollon musagete could be said to be ethereal, almost transparent; a kind of purity of sound that suggests the sea meeting the sky. The intoxicating wine of the Rite becomes transformed into the cleansing spring water of Apollo.

The purity of the string tone of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen was ideally suited to produce Stravinsky’s extra-refined neo-classical style, and conducting with great energy and agility, Daniel Harding brought out all the stylistic elements of the work, drawing a whole gamut of sonorities, taut rhythms and airy sounds from his versatile string section. The Variation for Apollo – the best known of the 10 sections – was played with a metallic, stark string sound whilst for Apollo and Terpsichore, the strings took on a deep melancholic air. The closing Apotheosis, was serene with the strings seemingly melting in thin air.

Leif Ove Andsnes’ playing of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 18 was a model of perfection. Andsnes had a rare combination of darkness of tone with a lightness of touch which rendered his performance throughout magical. The Andante un poco sostenuto produced some very expressive and gutsy playing from the orchestra, sounding almost like Beethoven in its raw, impassioned directness. With the Allegro vivace, Andsnes took on an even more agile and flexible style, his fingers hardly touching the keys as he floated his phrases with assured ease.

For an encore Andsnes played the Finale to Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D, (Hob.XVIII.11) with great panache.

Beethoven’s 5th Symphony was far more problematic, due in some part to the modest size of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. The Allegro con brio, with it famous opening figure, simply did not have the necessary weight that underscores this entire torrential movement. Although Harding’s pacing was direct, urgent and lean – reminiscent of Toscanini - there was something lacking drama: slimmed-down the orchestra sounded undernourished, with antiphonally divided violins rather scrawny of tone. With orchestral textures etiolated this most dramatic of Beethoven’s symphonic arguments sounded lightweight (perhaps exemplified by the inclusion of just three double basses).

The contrasting quieter moments of repose and reflection – the lyrical second subject and the poignant oboe cadenza - were beautifully rendered, however. What gave this movement added attack was the firm and assured timpani playing of Stefan Rapp using hard-sticks.The Andante con moto was again conducted with great gusto, with an awesome grandeur, heightened by some finely expressive woodwind playing. What was missing was the very important bass-line.

The last two intertwined movements were conducted with great bravura and were by far the most successfully rendered section of this chamber-like performance. In the Allegro the scurrying fugato ‘cellos came through (surprisingly) with incredible grittiness and attack, and whilst the two horns had little impact on their entry, the quiet pizzicato strings had a distilled ghostly magic about them. The Finaleo, linked to the scherzo by subdued timpani taps - incisive and menacing – was conducted and played with white-hot energy and panache. Harding’s conducting took on a sense of urgency, making his chamber orchestra sound almost like a full-bodied symphony orchestra, in stark contrast to the first two movements.

What made this performance so special and gave it extra power was the always audible and incisive playing of the timpanist, reminding one that this is intrinsically a ‘battle symphony’ with its military inflections. The final punctuated chords had directness and power.

Alex Russell



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