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AND HEARD CONCERT REVIEW Weber,
Schubert and Brahms: Stephen Hough (piano) Orchestra of
the Age of Enlightenment: Vladimir Jurowski (conductor) Royal
Festival Hall, 6.11. 2007 (GD) Geoff Diggines
Weber: Der Freischütz Overture.
Schubert: Symphony No. 8 (Unfinished), with new completion by Anton Safronov, UK premiere.
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. Op.15.
Jurowski is an admirably informed conductor demonstrating tonight an understanding of these Austro-German classics in terms of structure, tempi and orchestral timbre and lay-out. He was helped of course by an expert ‘period’ band. The admirably raucous sound of natural horns in the blaze of C major towards the end of the ‘Freischütz Overture, invoking the Wolf’s Glen scene, was indeed thrilling. Alhough the transition into the main ‘allegro’ theme of the overture was a shade tentative, from thereon Jurowski gave a most exciting reading of this rousing prelude; some slightly late entries from the woodwind in the brief development section did not greatly detract from this impression. Throughout the concert, Jurowski divided first and second violins, was most attentive to orchestral balance and texture, and generally avoided any old ‘romantic’ indulgences in terms of rubato or rhetorical licence.
The same musical understanding was evident from the beginning of Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony. How often I have heard this work dragged out with heavy accents to remind us of the ‘mysterious’, ’heroic’ nature of the work. In fact, Schubert simply marked the movement ‘Allegro Moderato’, and that is exactly what Jurowski gave us; a flowing ‘allegro’, not too fast but sustained in a steady lyrical metre throughout the movement. With a most perceptive ear for the affecting importance of orchestral texture, Jurowski reminded us of Schubert’s sharp accents and sudden dramatic de-crescendos, all accentuated by cutting brass (especially the natural horns), grainy woodwind and period timpani with hard-sticks. This attentiveness continued troughout the ‘Andante con moto’. Again, how many more grandiose maestros have wilfully misread this unambiguous marking? Jurowski allowed the music virtually to play itself in a most unaffected manner, allowing noble and lyrical directness full reign.
It has been known since Schubert’s death in 1828, that he did not exactly leave his B minor symphony ‘unfinished’. Many attempts have been made to ‘finish’ it however, most recently by the scholar Brian Newbold, who used themes from the ‘Rosamunde’ ballet music to complete the work. Schubert left a partially orchestrated piano sketch of the scherzo which is a marvellously boistrous thrusting B minor and C major, dance-like affair. But he either left the finale unfinished or it was begun, actually finished and then subsequently lost. Anton Safronov has added some very ‘authentic’ sounding horn clashes and timpani flourishes to the scherzo which could have been by Schubert himself. Safronov has rejected the earlier ‘Rosamunde’ thesis initiated by Sir George Grove in the nineteenth century - which was at best conjectural - and has incorporated instead some earlier Schubert works; notably the ‘Marches Héroique’ for four hands, D.602, and the unfinished Piano Sonata in F sharp minor, D. 571. Safronov’s finale is agitated in mood and permeated by repeated dramatic rhythmic figures punctuated by tonal (mostly minor key) dissonances and clashes. I was impressed. This kind of final movement would correspond with finals from other completed/ incompleted works of Schubert’s rapid maturity; the ‘Allegro assai’ of the late G major Quartet, the final of the ‘Death and the Maiden’ Quartet, and the wonderfully haunting C minor ‘Quartettsatz’, again from a presumably unfinished work.
It is probably best to see Schubert’s most famous ‘unfinished’ work as a work still in progress. I also agree with the traditionalists that somehow the two existing movements make a
complete statement. With this work Schubert was initiating a new phase of composition resulting eventually in the later soundscapes of ‘Winterreise’, ‘Schwanengesang’, the last Piano Sonatas, and the C major ‘Great’ Symphony and String Quintet; a unique combination of vast lyrical calm and optimism and minor key drama at times approaching the terror of the uncanny ‘unheimlich’. Although impressed by it, I am not absolutely sure that Safronov’s incorporation of earlier works here, no matter how brilliantly recast, really corresponds to the strangeness of the later Schubertian soundscape, but then perhaps we will never know. What is certain is that Safronov’s completion could not have a more empathic advocate than Jurowski who has worked closely with Safronov and gave the premiere of the revised version (the one heard tonight) in Moscow.
The young Brahms was at the keyboard at the 1859 premiere of his First Piano Concerto in Hanover. There can be few masterpieces by young composers (Brahms was in his mid-twenties) of such stature: although the young Handel’s Roman choral works and “Latin Motets’, and the 24 year old Mozart’s ‘Idomeneo’ come to mind. Brahm’s massive first movement is marked simply ‘Maestoso’ – which is open to a whole range of tempo and dynamic choices. Even Beethoven was more specific in his ‘Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso’ for the first movement of his Ninth Symphony. Jurowski tonight seemed more in tune with an ‘allegro’ tempo’. Again he demonstrated a precise ear for texture and quite exact dynamics; the OAE’s lower registers (especially the bassoons, bass clarinets and contra-bass strings really growled and snarled here). The monumental movement maintained a thrusting forward drive throughout from both conductor and soloist. Stephen Hough attended to the dramatic contour of the piece, sometimes at the expense of the more reflective lyrical passages, caught so eloquently by pianists like Pollini, Brendel and the late Emil Gilels. Although the OAE projected the work's austere orchestral texture staggeringly well in the brass and woodwind, I missed the extra weight in the string sections achieved by a full symphony orchestra. The string playing in itself was excellent but lacked a certain tonal fullness. This was partly to do with the Festival Hall’s rather restricted acoustic - despite all the publicity and money spent on its recent renovation I hardly noticed any improvement acoustically, or otherwise. But it was also partly due to the period gut strings themselves which project a more trenchant, sharp sound, not specifically given to tonal fullness. This is probably the sound Brahms was more used to at the work's premiere. Brahms is known however to have praised the richer orchestral sounds he heard later from the Meiningen Court Orchestra under Steinbach.
Jurowski and Hough played the great adagio (which Tovey claimed was requiem music, a Requiem for Brahms' friend Robert Schumann) more as an andante con moto. Brahms makes it very clear in the score that he wants a ‘sehr legato expressivo’, and ‘con sordini’ especially from the strings. Tonight there was little tempo latitude for ‘legato expressivo’, and the period gut strings could not really manage the kind of hushed pp, ppp, ‘sordini’ string tone heard so hauntingly in Gilels recording with Jochum and the Berlin Philharmonic. That having been said, Jurowski and Hough managed the mid-section B minor dialogue well, ensuring plenty of sustained dramatic charge for the climactic dialogue between piano and orchestra with plangent woodwind and brass to the fore. The final 'Rondo: Allegro' went mostly very well at a faster than usual pace. Typically, Jurowski conducted the C minor middle-section fugue with meticulous precision, but here I didn’t have the sense of it emerging inevitably from the overall symphonic argument as it does with conductors like Jochum, Szell and Bohm; it sounded a little detached. Even so, Hough and Jurowski played mostly in dialogue, projecting very similar views of the work. Towards the end of the extended D minor coda, Hough became so animated in his quasi cadenza that he scrambled a few notes - quite acceptable in a ‘live’ performance. And then Jurowski, untypically this time, exaggerated some of the orchestral dynamics. I am not sure that the coda’s ‘towering passion in D minor’ here (to use Tovey’s phrase) benefits from such raucous inflections from brass and woodwind; and the timpani’s repeated figurations in the final triumphant flourishes were definitely far too loud!
Overall, an interesting, sometimes exciting, but not wholly idiomatic conclusion to an otherwise innovative and compelling concert.
Weber, Schubert and Brahms: Stephen Hough (piano) Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: Vladimir Jurowski (conductor) Royal Festival Hall, 6.11. 2007 (GD)