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Seen and Heard Concert  Review

Wagner, Mozart, Dubrovay and Bruckner: London Schools Symphony Orchestra, Tamás Erdi (piano), Tamás Vásáry (conductor) Barbican Hall, London 30.4.2007 (JPr)


This was a long evening - more of that later, but it was also a very encouraging one as once again a youth orchestra showed what talent and commitment there is to classical music in these early years of the twenty-first century. Whether the audience (many of school age) were quite so interested was not so clear, when groups of mainly boys were overheard discussing who was the best looking girl violinist.

The distinguished pianist/conductor Tamás Vásáry, music director of the Budapest Symphony Orchestra, was conducting the London Schools Symphony Orchestra for the third time. Towards the end of the first half he began talking to the audience in a fairly impenetrable Bela Lugosi-type accented voice and then would not stop, making a long evening even longer. However he was correct in expressing his admiration for the playing of such professional standard when the musicians are not professional and have to cope with the every day stress of being at school. He paid tribute to London’s Centre of Young Musicians, which organises the LSSO, and their artistic director/conductor Peter Ash. Maestro Vásáry commented about how much he always enjoys working with young people playing this music for the first time.

What a difficult programme it was! For starters, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries and ending with Bruckner’s Symphony No.4 Romantic, plus a Mozart Concerto for two pianos and a first UK performance of a ‘musical joke’ After Mozart by a second Hungarian, László Dubrovay.

For the Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos in E Flat K.365 Vásáry was joined by the third Hungarian performer of the evening, Tamás Erdi. Mozart’s wrote it for his sister Nannerl and himself, and as such it generally has an air of a playfully mischievous dialogue. It was not in the revised Vienna version as suggested in the programme but in the lighter Salzburg one, without added clarinets, trumpet and timpani. Blind from birth, Tamás Erdi’s technique is unmannered and exceptionally precise, as the two pianists passed phrases back and forth, his playing was perfectly synchronised with Vásáry’s whose playing was just a little more high-spirited and had more nuance and dynamic shading … to my ears anyway. Nevertheless Erdi in his London debut was well deserving of an encore, Mozart’s D major Rondo, which displayed clear articulation and an easy virtuosity.

This was followed by Dubrovay’s short piece After Mozart picking up from the ‘dum-dee-dum’ theme from Marriage of Figaro played on the celesta it was developed in a rhythmic way throughout the orchestra sections driven on by the percussion. Squeaks, squawks and other animal noises, entirely intentional I hope, resounded around the Barbican to the obvious delight of the school children in the audience.

Maestro Vásáry made a point of saying how very difficult playing Bruckner is … and even more difficult to listen to! He said that for the audience the seventy minutes would be a big trial. He reminded us that symphonic music is an abstract thing and wanted us to enjoy it because ‘it is beautiful’.

Maestro Vásáry gave insights into Bruckner’s personality, recalling how the composer was once conducting one of his symphonies but at the podium nothing happened and someone in the orchestra piped up ‘Maestro please start!’ Bruckner in his self-deprecating way said – ‘No … after you!’ Perhaps someone will let me know the source of this story but it is very reminiscent of a story about Reginald Goodall who in old age did not use a stick, had arthritic hands and no noticeable downbeat. In a similar situation Goodall had to remind his orchestra that he had indeed actually started!

The composition of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony was a typically tortuous affair. He began writing it in 1874 and thought he had finished it that November, however between 1876 and 1880, he was urged to make considerable revisions of most of his early symphonies and his rewriting of the Fourth began in 1878. It involved altering the first and second movements plus composing an entirely new Scherzo. The Finale was only changed in a small way at this time, but in 1880 Bruckner devised a substantially new, more dramatic, ending. Early the following year, Hans Richter agreed to direct a performance of this work with the Vienna Philharmonic. It was after a rehearsal for this performance that there was the incident that poignantly illuminated Bruckner’s humility and naivety. The composer was so happy with Richter’s conducting that he went up to him, one of the leading musicians of his generation, and pressed a small coin (a thaler – nowadays about 50 pence) into his hand as a tip. This coin remained on his watch chain for the rest of Richter’s life!

Bruckner gave this symphony the subtitle ‘Romantic’. It begins with something typically Brucknerian; there is a hushed string tremolo alongside a motif called out by a solo horn. The main theme, which emerges from this introduces a typical ‘Bruckner rhythm’ of duplet followed by triplet. The second theme, originating in the strings, is lithe and dance‑like. Bruckner explores variants of both melodies at length, and the movement ends with a powerful restatement of the earlier motif. This opening movement where heroic music emerges organically from a mysterious background was ideally illustrated on the programme’s front cover by a reproduction of Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’ painting.

The marching music of the Andante is solemn, joyful and energetic by turns. There follows a ‘hunting scherzo’ and it features thrilling horn calls. This movement like the symphony’s opening and then the Finale starts with a soft string tremolando and then a brass fanfare. Bruckner cranks up the tension and volume until the first movement’s first theme returns. The Finale’s own melodies are added to memories of the Scherzo as the symphony ends with a triumphant musical peroration.

It is invidious to criticize a school’s orchestra in too much detail and indeed there was much to praise and little to comment adversely on. The highest compliment I can give is that for most of the time the standard of ensemble playing and musicianship displayed by them all was equivalent to the best of professional orchestras. However the Valkyries’ ‘Ride’ made for a nervy opener and could have done with a bit more gusto. Also in the Bruckner some ill-tuned exposed solo lines occasionally revealed the immaturity of the instrumentalists but this could be easily over looked.

As Maestro Vásáry belied his seeming frailty to clasp his hands together to end the music as if he was wielding an axe not a baton, he had energetically galvanised the LSSO through a performance that those listening to it will long remember. What was not so evident throughout the whole evening was how much those in the orchestra had enjoyed what they were doing. There was intense concentration throughout and very few smiles and I imagined how someone, like Ben Zander, would have exhorted them all to have more fun while they were playing. Though undoubtedly Wagner and Bruckner is indeed heavy stuff and perhaps nothing to be smiled at?


Jim Pritchard


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