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S & H Concert Review

Beethoven, Berg Benjamin Schmid (violin); Philharmonia Orchestra/Franz Brüggen, Royal Festival Hall, Thursday, October 23rd, 2003 (CC)


The Philharmonia are doing the younger generation of soloists proud. In early October, Paul Lewis delivered Mozart’s 25th piano concerto. On the present occasion it was the turn of the ‘Austrian sensation’ (I quote the programme’s promotional phrase) Benjamin Schmid, in Berg’s eternally touching Violin Concerto. The conductor was Frans Brüggen, a gentleman of wide experience. The contrast of age, with Brüggen, looking fragile, using a stool throughout and Schmid, bursting with youth, was a fertile one. Schmid brought a freshness of discovery to the cripplingly difficult solo part, Brüggen a seasoned conductor’s attention to detail in a score fraught with difficulties. There was a poignancy to the entire performance that seemed to point to the concerto’s dedication, ‘To the memory of an angel’.

Timbral considerations were foregrounded from the outset. The colours of the Concerto began with an almost ‘white-toned’ introduction. The violin arpeggiations were emaciated, as if they needed the statement of the twelve-note row to breathe life into them. Brüggen’s care was evident in the short preparation thereto: a marvellously smooth double-bass solo underpinned the restless syncopations. Schmid became progressively more impassioned and animated, although it has to be admitted his lower range could have been more throaty.

The orchestral shriek that opens the second movement was viscerally raw. Brüggen consistently highlighted Berg’s inventive ear for sonority, and it was telling that the ‘white’ sonority of the opening was recalled by the clarinets of the chorale, eschewing the more usual attempt to imitate an organ. A pity Schmid was occasionally drowned and that there was some bow-shake at his initial chorale-statements, because for the rest he projected a concentration-saturated interpretation. Technically, too, he could be astounding, double-stopped voices emerging with remarkable independence and holding his final, stratospheric note with a wonderfully pure tone. Brüggen’s only miscalculation was to over-egg some of the Variations, threatening to tend towards an uncomfortable expressionist sentimentality. Still, this remains a memorable account of this endlessly fascinating piece.

Brüggen has forged his reputation on 18th- and 19th-century music, so he was at home in Coriolan and the Eroica. Accents were explosive for the overture’s opening, the ensuing string phrase pregnant with expectation. The gentle second subject, interestingly, was almost indulgent. It was a dangerous ploy, but it worked because of the resultant extreme contrast, turning overture into mini-symphonic poem. The end was sensitively achieved. What a pity someone clapped straight away (to demonstrate they’d listened to a CD of it beforehand?)

The Eroica was fascinating. It was like listening to the piece afresh (not something one can say every day!) Brüggen’s lyrical approach to the first movement was initially surprising. It was certainly dance-like, and some of the earlier outbursts were underplayed. The famous and ferocious dissonances in the development were robbed of any destructive intent. Instead one admired the marriage of structural integrity to acknowledgement of local colour (Brüggen was not above dwelling on a couple of places along the journey). The unstoppable tread of the Funeral March was notable for the amount of audible detail (simply by lightening the strings); the dynamic thrust of the Scherzo was almost overshadowed by the horns’ virtuosity. As the principal horn screamed out the climactic (sounding) E flat, the second demonstrated almost superhuman agility in the lower register. Only the finale was not as cumulative in intent as it deserves to be. Careful rehearsal resulted in some remarkable moments (not least the prestississimo coda), but structurally this was the weakest part of the interpretation.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt whatsoever that the quicksilver, historically-informed mind of a Brüggen is infinitely preferable to the rather grey, self-indulgent and lacklustre outpourings of a Dohnanyi.


Colin Clarke



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