Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s concert
with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe opened with Henri Dutilleux’s Mystere
de l'instant for strings and percussion (1989), and this extraordinary
score was ideal to show off the subtlety and versatility of the string
and percussion sections of the COE.
The sound of the strings can only
be described as other worldly and so penetrating that they seemed to
seep into the body by a process of osmosis before reaching the ear.
The writing for the percussion was subtle and economic, sounding almost
stringy rather than metallic. This primordial ‘night’ music reminded
one of Bartok’s Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste but
taken further and deeper into the recesses of the subconscious. Saraste
conducted his forces with elegance and rigour, keeping tight control
over every thread of this complex texture of strange sounds.
muscular performance of Bela Bartok’s Piano Concerto No.3 (1945)
was in stark contrast to her more agile, lyrical and delicate Prom
reading under John Adams and the BBC
SO. This demonstrates her true artistry: always radically rethinking
a score and reinventing the music itself. Under Saraste’s taut and assured
baton, Grimaud played with much more force, drama and intensity, producing
a firmness of tone in the first movement which perfectly complemented
the brass and percussion, and like her Prom performance, she had a genius
for integrating her sounds with the woodwind with impeccable timing.
With the Adagio she brought
out a starkness and blackness that had an exciting, disturbing and alienating
quality to it. After hearing this bleakly emotional performance one
wonders how Grimaud will interpret this work again in the future.
of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in A major Op. 92
was rather clinical and mechanical to the point of sounding like a well-manicured,
computer programmed performance. While the two outer movements were
rigorously taut, with angular rhythms, they still sounded too anodyne,
pristine and civilised, lacking any sense of drama and tension.
Being played by a chamber orchestra
the main problem for this ‘late’ Beethoven symphony was textural balance
with five ‘cellos and three double basses. In my view this reduction
just does not work and allows the violins and violas to predominate.
This was clearly evident when Saraste was specifically conducting the
violins one moment (which had great presence and weight) and then turned
directly to face the ‘cellos and double basses who, in turn, sounded
opaque and weightless.
While the tempi for the first
movement were perfectly judged there was no real drama and gradual build
up of conflicting tensions. Again, this could be due to the lack of
dialogue between the violins/violas and the ‘cellos/double basses, which
particularly towards the closing passages should sound dark and turbulent
with a deep brooding tone.
Another important point: in this
more than any other Beethoven symphony, the ‘cello and double-bass line
serves as the basic back bone for the metre and pulse of the Seventh.
This is why Saraste’s performance made no logical sense and it felt
as if we were only experiencing an incomplete fragment of the symphony,
analogous to a painting with its background structure missing.
The opening passages of the second
movement sounded so opaque and flat that the tension broke: the five
cellos, already playing pianissimo, just faded into nothingness.
Although this opening passage is meant to be quiet it should still have
presence (as heard in Herbert Blomstedt’s and Jeffrey Tate’s studio
performances both with the Staatskapelle Dresden on CD).
Saraste’s pacing was somewhat
slack, making the music sound static and bland, without the requisite
dynamic contrast. The Presto simply lacked punch and rhythmic
vitality, with the orchestral textures levelled out: it was almost too
dainty and tame to be what Wagner nominated this symphony to be "…the
apotheosis of the dance."
The concluding Allegro was
by far the most successfully conducted movement. Saraste adopted the
correct manically fast tempi and tight rhythms. By far the most outstanding
playing of the evening was the breathtakingly precise timpani playing
of Geoffrey Prentice. Also outstanding were the three trumpeters Nicholas
Thompson, Julian Poore and Alison Balsom who in both first and last
movements especially had a fine cutting edge. But the end result was
still a performance that seemed under-powered with not quite the tension
and drama the composer surely intended.