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.