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Berg and Mahler: Mitsuko Uchida (piano) Christian Tetzlaff (violin) Philharmonia Orchestra Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor) Royal Festival Festival Hall 22.3.2009 (GD)

Alban Berg: Piano Sonata, Op. 1, Kammerkonzert for violin and piano with 13 wind instruments.
Mahler: Symphony No. 9 in D.

This concert was part of a major Philharmonia project entitled ‘City of Dreams Vienna 1900 – 1935.' The project is accompanied by a lavish programme brochure replete with reproductions of paintings by Klimt, Richard Gerstl, Max Oppenheimer and some early Schoenberg self-portraits, among others. There are also period photographs of Mahler, Berg, Schoenberg, Sigmund Freud and Zemlinsky. The project is extending its riches to 18 European cities including Paris, Amsterdam, Vienna, Brussels, Cologne, Hamburg, Barcelona, Stockholm and Madrid.

For such a lavishly produced project I was initially surprised at the historical, cultural, intellectual limitations found in just one of the opening overview essays on Vienna and modernism printed in the programme brochure. Commenting on Freud’s ‘Interpretation of Dreams’(1899), the writer observes that Freud had a ‘poor grasp of visual imagery’… and that his ‘interpretations often rely on re-alignments of German phrases or puns’. What this myopic and empirical reading ignores is one of Freud’s cardinal insights; that dreams are overlaid by constellations of linguistic, somatic and scopic configurations where the linguistic and visual inextricably interact. And Freud’s ‘poor grasp of visual imagery’ led to his seminal work on 'the scopic' and desire, as well as his   work on repression based on visual metaphors taken from the Roman neo-Attic bas-relief  ‘Gradiva’ and the paintings and life of Leonardo. Similarly the writer tells us that the literary and critical work of writers like Georg Simmel, Karl Kraus and Robert Musil basically ‘looked backwards’. What he blatantly fails to acknowledge here is that the last two named were trenchant ironists who, as Adorno noted,  looked both backwards and forwards in dialectical fashion; often offering flashes of ‘profane illumination’ (Walter Benjamin) about the coming of a century of barbarism.

The project also includes various talks and seminars on Viennese art and culture of the period. But there is one glaring omission in the project which I cannot understand; why is the music of Anton Webern not included? Or  the music of Ernst Krenek or Franz Schrecker for that matter? But Webern, I would argue, is pivotal here. Not only as a member of the second Viennese school, along with Berg and Schoenberg, but also, and arguably, the most advanced member of that school, whose work even surpassed that of Schoenberg in its unprecedented concentration of sound and silence:  leading directly to the development of serial technique associated with the Darmstadt school, and also a seminal figure for composers like Boulez. How much more of a challenging and historically consistent a project this would have been with the inclusion of Webern and/or Krenek and Schrecker. Mahler really belongs more to the nineteenth century and in any case is played (overplayed?) compared to the composers mentioned.

Mitsuko Uchida opened tonight's concert with a full-toned and resonant performance of Berg’s early piano sonata. She seems totally at home in Bergs soundscape of both old and imminently new harmonies.  Berg’’s use of chromaticism and the wavering of centered tonalities like B minor, which arrives only to be cast into a constellation of harmonic modulations, was fully understood and woven into the overall structure by Ms Uchida.

The Kammerkonzert, as one of Berg’s most innovative compositions, was given a most empathetic rendition by all involved; Uchida excelling in her concertante like piano improvisations and interjections. Also Tetzlaff seemed well attuned to the works quasi cadenzas and obbligato sequences. Salonen conducted the 13 wind instruments (with one or two doublings)  in a suitably florid fashion although at times I had the impression of too much homogeneity in the woodwind projection. The C sharp sequences in the ‘Adagio’ seemed somewhat smoothed over, and I missed the sharp accents and acerbic clarity that conductors like Rosbaud and more recently Boulez have achieved in this work. Berg's work is about textural harmony, but also about textural and dynamic contrast where each instrument projects a distinct and at times conflicting voice.

Much of the concluding work, the Mahler 9, was disappointing. Not only did Salonen deploy the  incorrect non-antiphonal violin arrangement, but encouraged throughout a great deal of vibrato in the string playing: two things we know that Mahler discouraged. Indeed vibrato was linked in Vienna at this period - and since - with cheap café music.  There was something more basic lacking in this rendition too. The great opening movement ‘Andante comodo’ is surely Mahler’s finest symphonic achievement, but its success in performance  depends crucially on the conductor's ability to articulate and gauge the opening pulse on which the whole movement is formed. This pulse is structured around falling seconds in the violins - with a motivic link to the falling figure from Beethoven’s ‘Les Adieux’ piano sonata -  which initiates a dialectic between D major and D minor. All this was totally lost tonight with the result that a ‘tempo primo’ was never established,  thus robbing  the movement of its coherence and sense of inevitable evolution. All this was not helped by frequent messy ensemble, with real horn intonation problems. The ‘misterioso’ cadenza (principally for solo flute and solo horn) was mostly ruined by a too loud horn. And throughout,  the timpani just thudded away without bothering to adjust to the work's many tonal constellations. (Mahler marks the initial D minor solo timpani figure - from the falling figure already mentioned - ‘morendo’ (dying away) but here it just sounded flat...already dead! Although I was sitting in the front middle stalls I really had to strain my ears to hear the double-bass configurations. There were certainly eight double-basses playing but it was often difficult to make a correspondence between sight and hearing. Also,  the strings in general, especially in the first movement,  had an anaemic quality. How different this ‘Philharmonia’ is from the days when they played this work with real trenchant diversity and tonal weight under Klemperer!

The two middle movements, like the first movement, sounded more like run-throughs than anything approaching an inspired performance. The heavy, clumsy, even ‘crude’ inflections that Mahler asks for in the second movement 'Ländler' were simply absent and the mock military band intonations in the movement's second waltz theme went for nothing. I am not usually one for over-characterisation in interpretation but this was severely under-characterised not so much in conductor -led overlay, as in ignoring Mahler’s implicit and encoded points of characterisation. Also the ‘Sehr trotzig’ (meaning very defiantly, or even angrily) in the ‘Rondo-Burlesque’ wa singularly lacking tonight. And Salonen’s sedate tempo was hardly ‘Allegro assai’. A superbly ironic and econmically trenchant movement sounded  simply tame and dull, with some particularly scrambled ensemble in the movement's coda.

The concluding ‘Adagio’ had the merit of not dragging. This was undoubtedly Salonen’s finest achievement tonight but even here I wanted more sonorous tone from the strings/double-basses. And the copious string vibrato only added to this sense of tonal lack. The final ‘dying away’ leading to the long process of gradual fragmentation in the concluding ‘Adagissimo’ never really reached that sense of sustained pp one hears in the greatest performances, and the introduction of portamenti in the long falling notes in first violins just before the final fragmentaion process, sounded simply unidiomatic and out of place.

Geoff Diggines

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