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Seen and Heard Concert Review



Mozart: Mariane Thorsen (Violin), Lawrence Power (Viola), Philharmonia Orchestra, Franz Bruggen (conductor), QEH, 23.05.2006 (GD)

At one time I can remember anticipating a Franz Bruggen concert with a sense of excitement. A St John Passion at the Concertgebouw in the early 90’s still rings in my ears, as do superb concerts he gave of Rameau, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven at Den Haag and Utrecht with his brilliant Orchestra of the 18th Century. With these illustrious memories, and also some superb recordings in mind, this concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra came as an acute disappointment.

In more general, standard concert terms, the three pieces of Mozart were all dispatched in a fairly competent, professional manner. But this never works for Mozart, and was totally at odds with the standards of empathy, and musical perfection associated with the Bruggen of memory. So what has gone wrong? Initially I thought it might have had something to do with the rather restricted acoustic of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. But this was quickly dismissed on recalling a superb Mozart concert there given there by Sir Charles Mackerras and the OAE a few weeks ago. From the first C major chord of K425 (the ‘Linz’ Symphony) the orchestra was not together; a flat C on the trumpet stuck out like a sore thumb. Also, and amazingly from Bruggen, there was a sense of indecisiveness between the initial tempo for the ‘adagio’ introduction and the transition into the main ‘allegro spiritoso’, which was taken at a rather sluggish tempo. Mozart’s brilliant C major bravura flourishes and cross-rhythm ceremonial figurations for brass and timpani went for virtually nothing.

Modern symphony orchestras like the Concertgebouw, and the Vienna Philharmonic seem to be able to adapt easily to ‘period’ style playing. I am sure the Philharmonia can also adapt in this way; but not on this showing. The orchestra’s woodwind (especially oboes and bassoons) were inaudible most of the time in the movements E minor development section, and the timpani and brass (horns, and trumpets) did not cut through the orchestral texture as they should. In fact the problems were compounded by Bruggen who, not content with ruining the movements tempo structure, could not seem to decide whether to play the piece in period style, or adopt an ‘old maestro grandiosity’. Older conductors in the Austro-German tradition like Klemperer, Bohm, and Jochum certainly knew better how to structure a classical movement, and reveal far more detail than was evident here.

The same sad problems persisted throughout the remaining three movements. The F major ‘andante’, in ’siciliano’ style was played in a bland manner. Woodwind were often out of tune, and the important, menacing interjections (in alternating C and F patterns) on timpani and trumpets were virtually inaudible, as were the minor key configurations for bassoons, oboes, celli and basses (which an old ‘romantiker’ like Bruno Walter understood so well). The third movement ‘Menuetto’ was totally devoid of its mock pomp swagger, and the final ‘presto’ which started well enough, as a true presto, soon lost all sense of coherence with unclear articulation of the many rococo flourishes in strings and woodwind. There were certainly signs of under-rehearsal here. When I arrived home I put on the old Klemperer ‘Linz’ with the Philharmonia as it was in the early 60’s. What a difference! What detail! How refreshing!

Initially it sounded as though the superb Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, with orchestra (one of Mozart’s last Salzburg masterpieces) had been rehearsed more efficiently by Bruggen. The thrilling ‘Mannheim’ crescendo was excellently judged (although lacking the sheer drama one still hears in Oistrakh’s Moscow recording with Kondrashin). Thorsen and Power played the demanding duo part quite well, Thorsen coming across as the more subtle player. But I did not always have the impression that they were playing as a duo as Albert Sammons and Lionel Tertis used to do in this work. Also lacking was a true sense of dialogue between the duo and orchestra (again understood so well by Oistrakh and Kondrashin). This was most notable in the exquisite C minor andante which was played quite well but seemed essentially detached from Mozart’s poignant (intimate and chromatic) world of alternating forms of dialogue and rich mood of contrast and sustained pathos.

The E flat rondo finale was given a true presto inflection, but by the time we arrived at the brilliant development section a lack of sustained involvement in the orchestra was noticeable, with smudged horns and woodwind and an overall lack of refined rhythmic clarity. Only occasionally in this movement did the concertante duo come near to a full concertante dialogue with the orchestra.

This rather depressing state of affairs did not improve in the last work K551 (commonly nicknamed the ‘Jupiter’, although not by Mozart.) Bruggen, as in the ‘Linz’ symphony, used a fairly large string compliment with five double-basses. This can work, but it only works when a better balance between strings, woodwind, brass and timpani are deployed. Again, Bruggen seemingly underplayed the brass timpani interjections, so important in this most majestic of Mozart’s symphonies. Mozart opens the symphony with a locus-classicus of contrast between assertive and passive projections on full c major orchestral chords and plaintive responses in the pp strings, which should sound all of a piece. Here one hardly noticed the contrast, and again some bad tuning in the woodwind and brass did not help matters. Overall, this magnificent movement suffered from the same maladies described in the ‘Linz’ symphony. There was a lack of veiled pathos in the string cantilena in the second movement ‘andante cantabile’. Mozart still had fresh memories of his triumphant success in Prague with Le nozze di Figaro - one only has to listen to the Contessa’s Cavatina ‘Porgi amor’ in the opening of the second act, or Barbarina’s fourth act ‘L ‘ ho perduta’ to hear the connections between the symphony and opera. Here, one would have had to listen quite intensely to notice the tantalizing operatic correspondences.

The swaggering mock pomp of the ‘menuetto’ was missed as was the swirling juxtaposition in strings and woodwind in the trio. The contrapuntal miracles of the last movement ‘molto allegro’ did not make their vital effect here… the complex chromatic tonal clashes in the extended development section lacked precision and impact. When Bruggen started the repeat of the development section (making it a very long classical movement indeed) I started to look at my watch. The triumphant contrapuntal summation of all the movements themes (now in the dominant C major) which constitutes the coda were simply run-through. What a contrast between this and a performance of K551 given earlier this year by John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists at the Cadogan Hall in London, where the full magisterial eloquence of this unique work were fully realized.

It has not been a pleasure writing such a negative review of a musician I believe, and know, is capable of superb, inspired performances. I fervently look forward to hearing the ‘real’ Franz Bruggen in the not too distant future.

Geoff Diggines




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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)