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 Strauss, Beethoven, Sibelius:  Lars Vogt (piano) Hallé Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder (conductor) St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 29.9.2009 (GPu)

Strauss, Don Juan
Beethoven, Piano Concerto No.3
Sibelius, Symphony No.5

It has been quite some time since the Hallé played in Cardiff and, as Sir Mark Elder pointed out when introducing the Sibelius symphony that occupied the post-interval section of this well-designed programme, it was the very first occasion on which he had conducted ‘his’ orchestra in St. David’s Hall. It was very good indeed to see (and hear) their return, even if the evening turned out to be somewhat uneven, musically speaking.

It was on the figure of Don Juan as conceived of in an unfinished poem by Nikolaus Franz Niemsch von Strehlenau (1802-1850) – more commonly known as Nikolaus Lenau – that Strauss based his tone poem. Lenau’s Don Juan is not a merely heartless seducer. No simple libertine, he is capable of real sensitivity and is disillusioned by his failure to find the feminine ideal he seeks; his cynicism seems to be as much a matter of frustrated idealism as of scorn for others. Strauss’s score contained extracts from Lenau’s poem (published posthumously in 1851) and there was a time when such extracts were regularly printed in concert programmes, extracts which present to us a Juan who speaks of how he wishes to fly across the world, to “every place where beauty blossoms” and to fall on his knees before every beautiful woman. But Juan finally exhausts his desire for beauty, recognises how he has been driven on by “a beautiful storm” which has now spent itself, leaving his world “a darkened desert”. Strauss’s music explores both the Don’s idealistic energy and his final recognition of the hollowness of his aspirations. Elder and the Hallé played the piece with fair ferocity and dash in the opening pages, and with some handsomely lyrical string playing in the two main lyrical ‘love’ episodes and the famous oboe solo was very attractively articulated; throughout there were some satisfying dynamic contrasts and variations of tempo which were expressive without feeling unduly forced. There was a good sense of spaciousness that contributed to the emergence of Juan as a kind of paradoxically nihilistic hero; the final expiration might, however, have been a little more poignant, a touch more emotionally complex.

Elder and the orchestra were joined by the German pianist Lars Vogt for what turned out to be an electrifying performance of Beethoven’s third piano concerto. Vogt has a somewhat histrionic manner at the keyboard and, fittingly, his reading found a good deal of dramatic intensity in the concerto, while also doing justice to the strongly Mozartean elements in the work. The opening tutti was conducted with strong rhythmic drive and some well-shaped phrasing; Vogt’s entrance was initially rather less authoritative than one is used to, but if there was a touch of reserve about his playing here it only served to prepare for the increasingly expressive playing which followed. Vogt built up a fair imaginative momentum in his treatment of the themes previously announced by the orchestra. Yet it was perhaps in the cadenza that one first fully appreciated the sheer quality of Vogt’s work. Beethoven’s remarkable cadenza had about the air of something being composed in the very instant that Vogt played it – this was virtuoso playing which never seemed remotely self-serving. Beethoven’s remarkable transition at the close of the cadenza, as the piano ceases on an unexpected chord, the strings re-enter and the timpani plays a fragment of the first theme, was finely handled and full of a powerful sense of suspense.

In the Largo, Vogt adopted what felt (my reference here is to the experience of the music rather than the evidence of the stopwatch) a very slow tempo, with quite magical results. With plenty of space and skilful use of the sustaining pedal there was an ethereal quality which was, yet, not without an edge of the sensuous. The complementary relationship between strings and piano soloist in this movement produced music of utter ravishment. The duet of bassoon and flute, with the arabesques at the piano full of individual inflections which forestalled that sense of the merely routine which one sometimes encounters at this point in the movement, was thoroughly delightful. Vogt’s touch was exquisite, his reading of the slow movement’s melodies yielding without being soft-centred. The contrast with the impetuosity of the third movement’s rondo – however well one knew that it was coming – was attention-grabbing, the change of emotional temperature remarkable, the meditative replaced by the boisterous. There was an intense nervous energy to Vogt’s playing, an energy which seemed to bring the very best from the orchestra (a ‘best’ to which, of course, Elder also made a considerable contribution). By the end of the movement the sheer brilliance of Beethoven’s writing achieved a fully persuasive realisation. This was an exceptional performance. Vogt hasn’t, I think, yet recorded this concerto. It is to be hoped that he will do so before too long.

The ensuing performance of the fifth symphony of Sibelius was prefaced by a brief address to the audience by Mark Elder; as well as pleasant words about audience and venue he gave a brief introduction to the piece. Not all conductors are such natural verbal communicators as Elder, but this is a practice which might usefully happen more often than it does.

Where the Beethoven concerto might reasonably be said to be essentially social music, a musical exploration of social and emotional intercourse between people, between the individual and society, Sibelius’s fifth symphony conveys a sense of a largely unpopulated world, of a solitude in which the individual’s stimuli come more far more from the natural world than from his fellow human beings. Its music is full of the sounds and movements of the birds and the wind, of (to quote Sibelius himself on the adagio) “earth, worms and misery”. The chill with which the closing allegro molto opens has an elemental quality and the famous theme introduced by the horns has associations of majestic flight. But for all the work’s responsiveness to the underlying rhythms and processes of the natural world, the fifth symphony is a work of concentrated structural complexity. A truly great performance of the work counterpoises the structural complexity and the nature mysticism.

Here we got a fuller sense of the beauty of the work’s construction than of its sweeping sense of flight and birdsong, ice and wind. This was a performance which never quite conveyed the sheer inexorability of some of the work’s shape; a performance in which the dynamic contrasts were less vivid than they might have been. It was as though a relishing of detail and texture – often rather beautifully achieved – led to a neglect of larger designs and the work’s grander arcs of movement. Of course, the performance was thoroughly competent as one would expect from an orchestra such as the Hallé and as intelligent as one would expect from a conductor of Elder’s quality. However, the quality of certain passages did not make up for the relative absence of a larger sense of inevitability. After the electricity of the Beethoven concerto, there was some sense of the mildly anti-climactic about the performance of this great symphony.

Glyn Pursglove

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