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Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms:  Philharmonia Orchestra, Philippe Jordan conductor, Till Fellner (piano.) Queen Elizabeth Hall, 28.10 2006 (GD)

 

 

Beethoven’s overture ‘Coriolan’ is one of his most powerful and concentrated studies in the key of C minor; it is more embryonic symphonic poem than conventional overture. Its restless, driving rhythms, sudden sforzati and dramatic silences must be deployed from within the work’s terse structure if the performance is going to have the required dramatic effect. I did not experience this in tonight’s performance. The opening arresting figure in C minor was not together in the strings, and despite nicely phrased woodwind and strings, in the plaintive lyrical sections the piece simply failed to cohere. Jordan adopted the rather old fashioned ‘romantic’ habit of slowing down for the contrasting E flat second subject, but he failed to register the ominous bass recitatives which underscore this theme and link structurally to the overture’s dramatic opening statements. Although it might have something to do the halls rather restricted acoustic, the important sharp rhythmic figures in the basses and celli were not always audible. Often the timpani were simply too loud, with rather unmusical thwacks at the end of cadences. I would have thought a conductor of Jordan’s standing would have checked this obtrusive playing, which persisted throughout the concluding Brahms symphony. Of course the contribution of timpani is enormously important in this central ‘classical’ repertory but tonight the timpanist rarely varied his tone, used the same sticks, and produced a clangorous tone often at odds with rest of the orchestra. The current Philharmonia’s general string tone is not the most full-bodied, and sounded particularly assaulted by the relentless barrage of timpani outbursts.

Having heard Jordan conduct an excellent ‘Cosi’ at the 2004 Salzburg Festival I had high hopes for the Mozart concerto No. 22 in E flat, K482, especially with the highly acclaimed Austrian pianist Till Fellner. And indeed Fellner, for the most part, played the piano part in a lucid and sometimes elegant fashion. But what I missed here is the gallant thrust Mozart asks for, the infinite variation of tone and stylistic dynamics. A case in point is the wonderful first movement development, where Mozart writes a series of opulently varied cascades, and arpeggios for piano in dialogue with woodwind. Here Fellner simply played the notes, ignoring Mozart’s provocative invitation to improvisation and tonal range/invention. The programme notes tell us that Fellner first gained ‘international recognition’ by winning the ‘prestigious’ Clara Haskil International competition in 1993; I wish he had learnt something from Haskil’s superbly idiomatic and imaginative Mozart playing!

The C minor Andante in variation form sounded more like an adagio at Jordan’s initial sluggish tempo. And the infinite scope, and contrast offered by the wonderfully contrasted (and linked) variations went for virtually nothing, despite some nice divertimento style woodwind playing; Mozart should never drag as it did here. The brilliant last movement Allegro, in ‘hunting style’ plodded along nicely, but failed to capture the wonderfully nuanced contrasts in each section, also there was a lack of rhythmic buoyancy in the orchestra, timpani sounding dull and trumpets and horns failing to shine through the string textures. The A flat andante cantabile in minuet style simply dragged, more an adagio aberration!

The C minor opening of Brahms’ first symphony, with its throbbing drum-beat, ‘a gigantic procession’ in Tovey’s words, did not seem to be able to settle for a unifying tempo…in a movement marked ‘poco sostenuto’! And the wonderfully effective inverted (ascending, descending) woodwind, horn- configurations overlaying the procession, in the manner of a threnody, were mostly inaudible. Things did not improve. Jordan, at the beginning of the main allegro, introduced an irritating accented de-crescendo/crescendo, thus robbing the music of its sustained stoical mood. The allegro E flat second subject, with its persistent triplet figure in the strings, was rather rhythmically slack, and those ominous jagged cross-rhythms in strings, which lead back to the opening allegro theme now in C sharp minor in the horns. went for virtually nothing, although Jordan did beckon the horns with emphatic gestures eliciting a mere  increase in volume! I wonder if Jordan has ever listened to the Toscanini recording? Not to imitate Toscanini, but to learn how arresting and radical this music can sound when played as written. with tremendous conviction. The climatic replay of the triplet figure with dramatic timpani inflections was not only too loud in the timpani figure but rhythmically inaccurate and smudged.

The second movement E major Andante sostenuto was here neither andante nor sustained. The movement never really recovered from Jordan’s ponderous initial tempo; attempts to regain a semblance of the correct (flowing) tempo only worsening matters. The second subject which develops around a C sharp minor oboe figure on florid cascades in the high strings sounded somewhat strident, in the exposed string tone, a far cry from miracle of orchestral string playing one hears in older recordings of the original Philharmonia under the likes of Toscanini and Klemperer. The quasi development in Eflat of the principal theme on sustained pp strings underscored by a long pedal on timpani was ruined by ridiculously loud timpani… more mezzo- forte than pp! Also. the beautifully reflective coda was undermined by the florid passages for solo violin (a gentle dialogue between violin and orchestra) being played too loudly.

The A flat Un poco allegretto third movement, after a rather hesitant opening, flowed along quite nicely if rather superficially. The woodwind in the extended trio section certainly need to be more forward sounding and rhythmically inflected. It all sounded too homogenous and smoothed out.

The brooding C minor adagio opening to the last movement with pizzicato recitatives in the lower strings sounded quite effective apart from the unnecessary and unmusical thwacks at the end of each timpani crescendo. Also the wonderful C major horn call was well articulated, if a little out of tune initially. But then Jordan did not link this section coherently enough with the Allegro non troppo final. Jordan seems to have paid little heed to the non troppo marking, playing the rest of the movement too fast and thereby robbing the music of much of its harmonic, contrapuntal, rhythmic detail.

The great coda itself, which should flow naturally from what has preceded it, was wrenched by Jordan into a different slower tempo gear, which actually made things worse. I could not discern the incredible remote modulations in the looming figures in the deep bass, and the great onrush of rhythmic accumulation was horribly smudged with grotesquely loud timpani. The repeat of the great brass chorale, now in a jubilant C major with trombones making their first entry with full orchestra, sounded rather harsh and strident, bearing no relation to their first pp intonement earlier in the movement, a thematic relationship Brahms specifically requests.

Will we ever again hear the likes of Toscanini, Klemperer, van Beinum in this symphony? This is rather depressing as all these conductors recorded the work nearly fifty years ago! (Toscanini over fifty years). Philippe Jordan, as I said earlier, is capable of really fine performances, but in the central Austro-German symphonic repertoire it is obvious, from tonight’s experience, that he has a very long way to go.

 



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)