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Mendelssohn, Tito Medek and Vaughan Williams: Guido Shiefen (cello), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Israel Yinon, Cadogan Hall, London, 3.2.2009 (BBr)

Mendelssohn: Overture: The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), op.26 (1830/1832)
Tilo Medek: Cello Concerto No.1 (1978 rev 1982)
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No.4 in F minor (1934)

Because of the weather conditions – it snowed during Sunday night in case you hadn’t noticed – Monday night’s show with Pinchas Zukermann was cancelled and many of
London’s theatres were dark, so it was good to get out of the house tonight to hear some live music. At first I expected that I might have to break out the huskies and sled to make my way to Sloane Square, to the re–named Toboggan Hall, but train and bus services were running so that wasn’t necessary. However, it might have put many off leaving home for the hall was sparsely populated. At least I assume that this is the reason for the poor attendance.

After a big boned, and very dramatic, Hebrides Overture, we were given a Cello Concerto by a composer who must be totally unknown to almost everyone in this country. Tilo Medek was born in 1940, in what, five years later, was to become the German Democratic Republic. In 1977 he and his family were deprived of their citizenship and they moved to the west where he died in 2006. I am always interested in hearing works by composers new to me and I anticipated this performance with some excitement but sadly,  what I heard left me wondering why on earth the piece had been programmed at all. Perhaps it was the fact that it was underwritten by Internationale Stifftung zur Foerderung von Kultur und Zivilisation (International Foundation for Culture and Civilisation) and a recording was made of the performance for future release on CD. I cannot believe that anyone would have chosen the piece solely on its musical merits for it appeared to have next to none. That the work, as a composition, was pretty worthless was obvious from the outset; the music had no discernable voice of its own – flashes of so many others crossed the many (oh, so many) pages of the score. We had the usual East German official music, then came some Copland, in the slow movement, there was Shostakovich all over the place and even some Mahler. At one point I was even reminded of Friedrich Gulda’s unusual Cello Concerto.

There were many structural problems with this work. It had no shape – four large movements, all with titles which were supposed to hint “…at something in order to spark the listener’s imagination rather than to fix it on some descriptive content.” Actually, the whole point of abstract music is that it exists for its own sake and the best of it needs no adjunct to help the listener. Less good music, of course, needs all the help it can get. Towering, Street Hit, And now and then, all white, an elephant and Like a bolt from the blue were the fanciful section titles of the sections but what they had to do with the music remained a mystery to me. Despite the huge size of the piece, the music was small in scale and, although big in aspiration, it simply didn’t have the musical wherewithal to succeed in its ambitions.

It seemed poorly written, very poorly orchestrated and embarrassingly naïve in its supposed grandeur. Sections of the orchestra would play a little music and then there would be a solo cadenza : this set the layout for the piece. There were few tuttis, but when they occurred,  they seemed so badly conceived that, at times, the RPO sounded like a very bad school orchestra so barren was the material given the players  to  work with. There were no tunes, simply endless running phrases on the strings and for the soloist. This music came from nowhere and went nowhere and there was no sense of architecture. Ultimately, I found much of it risible in its discomforting attempts to appear significant. That Guido Shiefen had committed the 45 minute score to memory remains a wonder to me.  There are many finer, and shorter, Cello Concertos more deserving of our attention – I can immediately think of the Havergal Brian (a delightfully small scale work from late in his career (1964), the Vagn Holmboe and Martinu’s 1st. All of these pieces, and more, could take preference when it comes to performance. I can only hope that the members of the RPO were well recompensed for their services.

Israel Yinon made his name conducting works by composers destroyed by the Nazis – whether by exile or extermination. He certainly seemed to make a good job of it, but he was, for a long time, without competition so one was never sure exactly how good a conductor he actually was. I was hoping that tonight we would get a chance to find out.

Vaughan Williams’s 4th Symphony was given a magnificent performance but I have to wonder if, after the humiliation of the Medek, the Orchestra wanted to show us just how well it could play well-written music. I didn’t feel much of a guiding hand from Yinon. With his arms mirroring each other most of the time, and his head in the score far too often, there appeared to be no sense of direction from him – indeed on several occasions he stopped conducting and seemed to be trying to work out where the orchestra was before starting to beat time again. And that was the crux of his performance: Yinon beat time and the Orchestra played like demons. This was the Royal Philharmonic’s performance, not the conductor's.

Apart from the worthless Concerto, this was a good concert with some stunning playing from the Orchestra, but what a show it could have been with a surer hand at the helm.

Bob Briggs

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