Photo, Chris Christodoulou

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Royal Albert Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Change of conductor. Daniel Harding stepping in for an indisposed Kirill Petrenko. Change of programme. Bruckner Four replacing Shostakovich Ten. Change of dynamic. Retained from the originally advertised programme, Schnittke’s Viola Concerto, in the incomparable, queenly hands of Tabea Zimmermann, scaled perfection and plumbing the deepest, darkest, most troubled of human depths. Completing it shortly before his first stroke in July 1985, Schnittke wrote the work for Yuri Bashmet. Against a backcloth of Cold War tensions, the onset of the Gorbachev era, Bashmet’s name, in German nomenclature, seeding the pages, its three movements draw together the many traits, contradictions and stresses of a complex, difficult, troubled life and times. The journey is dramatic, violent, sardonic, wistful, bacchanalian, monstrous, filmic, anything and everything in the mix, from classical to can-can to Orthodox chorale, murmured tremors to tumultuous explosions. “A fascinating reflection of a complex and fragile late 20th-century mentality”, believed the late Alexander Ivashkin. For the composer himself “the character of a restless chase through life (in the second movement), that of a slow and sad overview of life on the threshold of death (in the third movement)”. No violins in the scoring, but triple woodwind, quadruple brass and percussion plus eight each of violas, cellos and basses (to right of stage), together with harpsichord (more  timbral than audibly present), piano, harp and celesta (to left). Zimmermann’s reading was one of sincerity and giving (“I believe every note in this Concerto … [the man’s] life-struggle in the Soviet Union … you know exactly what it’s about”), her tone magically penetrating whatever the level, her multiple-stopping a thing of poetically balanced beauty and articulated polyphony, her fading C-sharp at the end sounding the faintest hope that mortality and light might after all yet endure. She let the theatre of the music speak for itself, eschewing all invasive gesture. Major-key phrases ached; minor ones touched nerve-ends. Harding and the Berliner Philharmoniker matched her note for note, the transient Psycho-like vehemence (perceived by some conductors) devastating rather than screaming, the long paragraphs of stillness and precision ensemble placed exactly, the closing funeral steps (Zimmermann’s “stopping of the heart-beat”) coalescing bleakly into Mahlerian A-minor, pianissimo – hushing the packed audience. At 31:35 this may durationally have been on the brisker side of the spectrum (Bashmet/Rozhdestvensky’s 1987 Melodiya recording runs out at over thirty-five) yet the spirit was temporally spacious. Magnificently breathed. 

Harding’s Bruckner – using Benjamin M. Korsvedt’s recent critical edition of the 1881 (revised) second version – aspired to a lesser order, leaving me unexpectedly indifferent, its relative low charge reminiscent somewhat of a Mahler Six he did with the Wiener Philharmoniker at the 2017 Proms. Maybe it had something to do with the text, greater aural familiarity with the ‘old’ Haas and Nowak editions (and legendary renditions associated with those) over-crowding the memory banks. Mindful of the notorious compositional/textual minefield of this particular score, Korsvedt’s edition, to quote from the publishers, “takes into account all surviving manuscript sources, including [Hans Richter’s] premiere performance material from 1881 [Vienna, 20 February]. In particular, the musically important time changes in the Finale and the explanations of the tempo scheme intended by Bruckner are a significant distinguishing feature.” Harding towed along. He crafted one sonorously special cameo after another, a panoply of framed mosaics. Only rarely though a pantheon of linked columns. Here and there Bruckner’s formal thinking came across unclearly, indecisively even. Events, episodes, inclined to start and stop, the climaxes (but for two, at the end of the second and final movements) seemed fitful, the peaks approached but then side-stepped, the orchestration layered and blocked more than customarily into opposing terraces of detached sound. At sixty-seven minutes, the performance wasn’t so long (Celibidache, whose structural/tempo reasoning was Robert Simpson’s ideal, ended his Munich days taking eighty or more) but more than once (a particularly Andante slow movement) it bordered on the interminable. It needed the Philharmoniker, quality and pedigree personified, to compensate. Led by Noah Bendix-Balgley, here was golden, regal playing, the strings (antiphonal violins) bloomed and ermine-edged, trumpets and heavy brass slicing through the Hall like thunder sheets, kettledrums heroically proud. Emmanuel Pahud’s flute duetted and descanted, the reed woodwind caressed their ländler. Stefan Dohr (last encountered propping up a bar in Pärnu) shaped the opening horn solo as only he can, timelessly from afar, the venue’s organ, Bruckner’s Kensington console a hundred-and-fifty years ago, towering majestically behind him.

BBC Proms 2022 – Prom 62: Berliner Philharmoniker. Kirill Petrenko conducts Mahler’s Seventh Symphony.

Postcards from Pärnu – Pärnu Music Festival 2022: The opening concerts, July 13-16.