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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Hartmann & Beethoven: Midori (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Ingo Metzmacher, Royal Festival Hall, 5th March 2005
(T J-H)

It is an enduring mystery that forty-odd years after his death, the music of Karl Amadeus Hartmann is still such a rarity in the concert hall. Often cited as the missing link in the symphonic tradition that joins Beethoven to Mahler to Henze, Hartmann’s music is as accessible and interesting as that of his Russian contemporary Shostakovich, with whom he shares a similar harmonic sensibility and a predilection for dark, brooding sonorities. In fact, his musical language is in many ways richer and more varied than Shostakovich’s, taking in elements of Bartók and Berg with a healthy dose of Hindemith thrown into the mix. So why the relative obscurity? It is hard to say: although his music is perhaps a little unfocussed at times, it overflows with striking ideas and contains moments of exquisite beauty, deliberately harking back to music of the past while attempting to synthesise new forms and possibilities for the future. Perhaps it is this latter searching quality which has kept Hartmann’s music from establishing its proper place in the repertoire, but one suspects it is more to do with the general conservatism of concert programmers, who imagine that all post-War composers must of necessity be unappealing and unapproachable.

One man at least is doing his bit to revive Hartmann’s reputation and that is Ingo Metzmacher, whose appearance with the LPO on Saturday must surely have won a couple of thousand new converts to the Hartmann cause. Metzmacher has previously recorded the complete symphonies of Hartmann to much acclaim (EMI 5 56911 2 5), and it is to him more than anyone that we owe the current reappraisal of Hartmann’s legacy. Thankfully, it is hard to imagine a better advocate, for Metzmacher is one of the most exciting conductors working today, and his ability to breathe new life into both hallowed classics and buried treasures of the modern era was very much in evidence in Saturday’s concert. His savvy as a programmer was also unmistakable, for it takes some doing to pack the Royal Festival Hall for a concert largely dedicated to an obscure 20th Century symphonist. Packed it was, though, even if only a dedicated few in the audience had come to hear Hartmann or Metzmacher: the vast majority, needless to say, were here for Beethoven and – in particular – Midori.

Certainly, very few of Midori’s fans would have been disappointed with her playing of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. She gave an intimate and focussed performance, eschewing grand gestures in favour of a more inviting, elegant lyricism. Though her tone still has a slightly steely edge to it, there was great clarity to her playing – particularly in the concerto’s many forays into the violin’s high register – and she made the difficult double-stops of Kreisler’s first movement cadenza sound musical rather than showy. With eyes closed throughout, she swayed from side to side, at times leaning into her instrument as if she were physically bound to the music’s contours: it was entrancing to watch and lovely to listen to.

But the real star of the show was Hartmann, and it was his ever-fascinating music that began and ended the concert. The programme opened with Hartmann’s earliest orchestral piece, the Miserae of 1933-34, in effect a single-movement symphony for large orchestra. It contrasted a jaunty, highly rhythmic central Allegro with slower episodes derived from the eerie, crepuscular opening; glissandi from strings and brass were prominent in the many and varied orchestral textures, and a doleful bassoon solo from Gareth Newman took centre stage in the more reflective moments. Metzmacher drew a lucid, transparent sound from the LPO along with a great deal of commitment, the orchestra clearly relishing the many opportunities for colourful characterisation the music afforded. If at times it sounded more like a catalogue of interesting ideas than a cogently argued symphonic statement, Hartmann compensated for this with sheer, unbridled inventiveness. It was certainly enough to whet the audience’s appetite for the main item on the programme.

This was the Third Symphony, forged from the ashes of two scrapped wartime pieces, Klagegesang and a Sinfonica Tragica. Eventually completed in 1949, it consists of two contrasting slow movements, the first of which is further divided into two distinct sections. The first of these begins as a sort of lament for strings, a pliable solo double bass melody rising from ‘a mysterious sound-world of shadows’ as Hartmann put it, eventually joined by a further quartet of solo strings. The interweaving melodic lines were brought out vividly by Metzmacher, and as the rest of the strings gradually joined in, the music built to a peak of intensely chromatic counterpoint, every strand of which was clearly audible. Thumping timpani introduced the second section – what Hartmann called the ‘Virtuose Fuge’ – and here the music was more energetic, built around a spry, angular fugue subject which was undercut by a dark and slightly menacing ground bass. The LPO’s crisp playing brought out all the startling little details of orchestration, such as the jazzy interlude for tuned percussion towards the movement’s end. The second began with a twisting, winding trumpet solo from Paul Beniston, explicitly recalling – as in several of Hartmann’s works – the opening of The Rite of Spring; it soon gave way to a chilly, mysterious atmosphere from which various themes and motifs gradually emerged, eventually coalescing in an Allegro moderato section of great energy and power. Though the second movement was stylistically very different from the first, it was no less effective and as it wound down once more into that ‘mysterious sound-world of shadows’, there was a real sense of having come full circle. The audience loved it, applauding as if for a beloved classic – much to Metzmacher’s credit. But this was very much Hartmann’s night, and it was a triumph, even if it came forty years too late. One can only hope that forty years from now, no one will need the added incentive of a Midori to pack a concert hall with this incredible music.

Tristan Jakob-Hoff

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