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Seen and Heard Concert Review

 

 

Brahms, Bernstein, Tchaikovsky: James Ehnes (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop (conductor), Barbican Hall, 1.12.2005 (GD)

 

 

The Tragic Overture of Johannes Brahms has been compared to all kinds of tragedy - is it Sophoclean, Shakespearean, closer to ‘Oedipus Rex’ or ‘Hamlet’? It is probably more productive to view the work from a more straightforward musical perspective, just as this performance was straightforwardly competent. Not enough was made of the heroic D major, D minor clashes in the work’s exposition, and the wonderful transition into the contrasted middle section which also takes the form of a solemn D minor sustained march development which did not register as it should; the horns and trombones failed to respond fully in the noble brass pronouncements in the exposition and coda, whilst the strings seemed incapable of playing the truly sustained pianissimo so essential in this work. Marin Alsop’s anodyne performance seemed too pristine and played down the dramatic thrust of the work.

Both orchestra and conductor came more into their own in Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Serenade’. Bernstein wrote the piece in 1954 and included an elaborate programme from Plato’s Symposium, with each section headed by a character from that famous text. It is a most attractive piece, deftly orchestrated and projecting the various influences of Barber, Copland, Bartok, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and not surprisingly for Bernstein, jazz.  Alsop, in Bernstein fashion, gave an opening, humorous commentary on the work, placing Agathon’s gravitas, Phaedrus’s advocacy of ‘love’ in all its manifestations, and Aristophanes’ rather onomatopoeic drunken hiccup, denoted by a stacatto dropped figure in the violins, into context. Surprisingly she made no mention of the famous dialogue between Alcibiades and Socrates, the most famous disavowal of ‘pure’ love in Western history.  However, we learn from the programme note that the ‘Symposium’ programme was actually ‘imposed’ on the work when it was near to completion. As with the preceding Brahms’ Tragic Overture perhaps it is more productive to approach the work in musical terms, as a brilliantly attractive quasi-violin concerto. Despite Alsop’s informative comments one could just as convincingly associate the work with say Voltaire’s Candide, or scenes from Swifts’ Gulliver, if one felt predisposed so to do. James Ehnes executed the violin part with brilliance and conviction.

Like the two preceding works in tonight’s concert Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Sixth Symphony has been linked to various programmes. Tchaikovsky, although characteristically vague about any specific agenda, did attach some extra-musical idea to the piece, allegedly preferring his audiences to ‘guess’ as to the underlying meaning of the symphony.  The composer did agree on his brother’s suggestion of Pathétique as the work’s title. As that title suggests Pathétique (note the more general inflection of the French word) refers to some more pervading and overall sense of the tragic. I have little doubt that now, if we know the work, and study the intricate score there is little question of what Tchaikovsky wished to project with no enigmatic secrecy.

The work is undeniably Tchaikovsky’s most dramatic and extreme work. In fact one could argue that the work   is about the most dramatic of extremes. The sudden crash that initiates the first movement’s development section taking it into the remote tonal world of G minor and plunging us into the most abysmal diminundo sequences, contrasts totally with the movement’s second subject big melodic theme. The G minor development sequence metomorphosises into a sombre B minor, F sharpe minor intonation on the trombones taken from the Russian Orthodox Mass of the Dead, which Tchaikovsky knew well.  It has been contended that the composers extreme score markings of pppppp (before the violent crash initiating the development section), and ffff at 298-99 (in the Eulenberg Score) are impossible to perform in a sustained and musical way.  It was the LSO in the mid-seventies that performed the ‘impossible’ under Igor Markevich in London. And I have only heard comparable readings on record from the likes of Toscanini and Mravinsky.

Alsop never really approaches those essential extremes. Indeed her whole tepid reading, which she conducted from memory, was rather understated. But having said that the performance was full of insights in the context of Alsop’s timid, less epic, dramatic approach. The opening Allegro was articulated in a most sensitive, delicate manner, almost Mozartian.  Why does Alsop not divide her first and second violins? The antiphonal (stretto) here demand it in order to convey the interplay of extreme and contrasting dynamics! Alsop wisely follows the composer’s incalzando (pressing forward) instruction in the second subject’s big melody thus avoiding all sentimentality. The dramatic crash into the vast development section did not register the shock intended and Alsop takes the composers allegro vivo marking too literally, ignoring the subtending Allegro non troppo and sostenuto markings. The sharp brass cross-rhythms in the middle episode to the development moderato con anima in F sharp minor were rather sloppily delivered here and the approaching great ascending/descending theme with Wotan-like descending trombone figure at ffff was simply underplayed and underwhelming. As were the timpani in the descending climax which sounded smudged and woolly toned: the timpanist simply did not understand the massive crescendo build up in the climax. Interestingly, Alsop uses the later revised score which restores the composers timpani swell at 280-281. It is now almost certain that Tchaikovsky had intended this dramatic stroke - even though it was devoid of drama here.

The Allegro con grazia Waltz second movement was elegantly shaped by Alsop, only being let down by some sour woodwind playing just before the movement’s coda. The gigantic march - Allegro molto vivace - was rhythmically adroit and crisply articulated, with well-played and punctuated bass-drum interjections. But the rather reticent and indistinct timpanist here was distinctly out of tune and often out of sync with his colleagues. The movement’s frenzied coda with wild oscillating and juxtaposing figurations from strings, woodwind, brass, percussion did not tell here, missing the mood of panicked resolution.

The great concluding Adagio lamentoso, where the composer re-introduces the incantations from the Russian Orthodox funeral music, was, in general too light and too swift. However the strings did improve in the first exposition of the great lament melody and the powerful ff full orchestra interjections linking the exposition, the dramatic recapitulation and sombre coda were given the right rhythmic inflection. The mysterious single stroke on the gong just before the throbbing lament of the coda in the home key of B minor was most discreetly managed. Alsop obviously knows this great score quite well and perhaps her performance of it will develop and improve. But at this stage it is more a matter of a series of interesting interpretive commentaries on the work. I rather feel that the composer was expecting much more. But then Tchaikovsky, throughout his complex and often tortured life, always expected more, not least from himself.

 

 

 

Geoff Diggines

 

 

Further listening:

 

Brahms: Tragic Overture: Philharmonia orchestra, Otto Klemperer (conductor): EMI 07243 5 67029.

 

Brahms: Tragic Overture: London Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Monteux (conductor): Philips: 442 547-2.

 

Bernstein: Serenade, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein (conductor): DG: 445 254-2GC2.

  

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 6 in B minor, Pathetique, Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, Evgeny Mravinsky (conductor): Erato: 2292-45756-2

 

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 6 in B minor, Pathetique, NBC SO, Arturo Toscanini (conductor): Recorded Live, October 1938: Naxos: 8 110825.

 

 

 


 


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)