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.
Brahms: Tragic Overture:
Philharmonia orchestra, Otto Klemperer (conductor): EMI
07243 5 67029.
Brahms: Tragic Overture:
London Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Monteux (conductor): Philips:
Bernstein: Serenade, Israel
Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein (conductor): DG:
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.