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Seen and Heard Prom Review

 

PROM 44: R. Strauss, Mozart, Henze, Richard Goode (piano); Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra/Ingo Metzmacher. Royal Albert Hall, London, Wednesday, August 18th, 2004 (CC)

 

The big deal about this concert was surely the UK première of Hans Werner Henze’s Symphony No. 10 and this was perfectly reflected in the performances during the evening – lacklustre, even amateurish, playing in the first half vied with rugged determination in the second. Audience reaction was the reverse, however - a fairly large audience for the Strauss and Mozart effectively halved post-interval - and then progressively lessened even more as Henze’s complexities proved too much for the faint-of-heart.

 

Strauss’ Don Juan tells the famous tale of an arch-seducer. Why do I remind you of this? Because Metzmacher presented an effective impossibility – a Romantic wag who seemed to have mislaid his pheromones. Irredeemably low on opulence, this was a reading marked by an uncalled for restraint. The famous unison horn call was accurate as opposed to swaggeringly heroic and there was zero to set the pulse a-racing anywhere, while on the other side of the coin the Innigkeit of the more tender moments was entirely absent. Vastly disappointing.

 

Richard Goode’s pianism divides opinion. His set of Beethoven Sonatas I find pedestrian against the tide of critical opinion (this year also sees him as Pianist-in-Residence at the Edinburgh Festival.) After a run-through of the opening tutti (had this been rehearsed), Goode brought a chamber-music approach to a concerto that has a wider emotional ambit than most by Mozart – No. 20 in D minor. Slack ensemble both within the orchestra and between orchestra and soloist detracted from spotting the nicer points of Goode’s playing and, as the performance moved on, one became aware of a succession of grunts. More gutteral than Pollini, the sounds (which presumably imply association with the music’s processes) seemed at odds with Goode’s rather anonymous account of the solo part. Chamber music passages were attempted, to no great effect, as another unexpected and unwelcome sonic visitor made itself known. Rain pounded on the Albert Hall …

 

An attractive slow movement (swift of tempo) and neat energetic playing (Goode) in the finale could not compensate. Goode’s own cadenza in the latter was showy enough, but no great shakes; the lack of excitement of the closing pages brought to an end a performance more memorable for extraneous noises than for its affinity to Mozart.

 

So to the piece we all (well, those of us that didn’t leave) wanted to hear. Henze’s Symphony No. 10 (1997-2000), on this hearing, is nothing short of magnificent. A much larger orchestra was on stage (the scoring calls for huge ensemble, including such rarities as heckelphone, oboe d’amore and a kitchen that includes Trinidad steel drum and Japanese huge drum, the ōdaiko).

 

Paul Sacher implied to Henze that he should defy tradition and force his way past the red-letter Ninth Symphony (no Lied von der Erdeisch avoidance tactics here!) It is cast in at least a traditional number of movements – four – but the finale is slow (Moderato). There are titles, as brief as they are accurate: A Storm; A Hymn; A Dance; A Dream. The work lasts just over forty minutes. Sir Simon Rattle premiered the work in August 2002 with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the Lucerne Festival. Metzmacher is no stranger to modern music, though, and he seemed remarkably more secure in multiple-metre marathon than in the very different demands of Richard Strauss and Mozart.

 

How experienced Henze is in realising his seemingly limitless aural imagination. The opening of ‘A Storm’ might in anyone else’s hands have been mere modernist grumblings we’ve all heard a thousand times before. Instead, these subterranean shiftings achieved a disquieting that warned of an imminent storm, while string fragments spoke of Henze’s famous yearning lyricism, culled from the air of his adopted Italy. Gusts of storm-wind were visceral as a Sorcerer’s Apprentice-like aural imagery was unleashed, directed here towards a dark space. And how well rehearsed this was. The Hamburgers simply oozed confidence, brass playing as a unit (far more than they ever managed in Don Juan.)

 

The second and third movements are scored for strings only and percussion and brass only, respectively. ‘A Hymn’, lasting some eight minutes, is icily lyrical. Metzmacher had evidently spent some time balancing textures; pianissimi were breathtakingly quiet. Even the solo violin of the leader, Monika Bruggaier, sounded warmer and more persuasive than in the Strauss. Hugely expressive, the movement traces a rainbow registral arch.

 

‘A Dance’ includes some cheekily bluesy writing for a quartet of trombones. Here the time signatures must have flashed by. Perhaps there could be even more energy … a recording of this work should be some record company’s immediate priority and then maybe we could hear it in all its glory.

 

The final ‘A Dream’ is very, very dark. Not a nightmare, however – Henze’s chosen harmonies glow, lit by a fire all of their own. Lush textures were magnificently realised (why didn’t the Strauss get the benefit of the Hamburger’s talent?) Parts of this felt very strongly of imaginary theatre, the whole bristling with an inevitable logic. Cast on a large time-scale (just over a quarter of an hour), the music seemed to want to transcend time itself. Only the end seemed sudden, leaving a question mark. This movement, according to Henze, sums up ‘the dreams that had already begun to haunt me in the Eighth Symphony’ (a work that was inspired by Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’.) It brings to a close what appears to be (on my one hearing) a wonderful work born of a composer who still has much to give us.

 

Colin Clarke

 

 

Further Listening:

 

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20: VPO/Pollini (soloist/director), live on Andante 4992



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