Ateş Orga, Guest Writer

Strausses December 2021 Under Mikko Franck [pictured], comfortable in its superior 1400-seat studio auditorium overlooking the Seine, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France is a relaxed, responsive ensemble, boasting a galaxy of cultured section principals and a notably suave string section. Among the best of European orchestras. This ‘party piece’ concert, given before Christmas, juxtaposed Richard Strauss and the Habsburg Strausses. Premiered by d’Albert in 1890, the former’s youthful D-minor Burleske doesn’t get programmed often, imposing advocacy notwithstanding. Hans von Bülow thought it a “complicated piece of nonsense”, Strauss believed that at the very least it needed “an outstanding(!) pianist, and a first-rate(!) conductor” to save it. Long in Rudolf Buchbinder’s fingers, he and Franck put together a musical account, resisting force or crudity while yet mindful of Teutonic forests and Lisztian souls of the stillborn and unchristened forsaken between heaven and hell. Artful timpani obbligato (Jean-Claude Gengembre) Different poetic dimensions lit the Suite from Rosenkavalier, striking in its lushly expansive paragraphing and the lingeringly nostalgic beauty of the various woodwind and violin solos. Turning to the Habsburg Strausses, Franck (like Paavo Järvi in Bremen last spring) showed himself a refined, physically involved master of the style, the feeling for dance and movement, a happy smile, rooted in his Nordic identity. Johann Senior’s Lorelei Rhein Klänge and Seufzer-Galopp (attack and cessation in the latter teasing to the last) proved welcome, less weathered choices, along with the Younger’s Roses du Sud abundant in a grace and rubato to teach the Viennese a thing or two (A-list Philharmoniker guests not least), nothing in Franck’s deceptively easy style to be taken for granted. Delicious.

Strausses December 1970. A wonderland in black-and-white, this is a stupendous half-hour from the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Sergiu Celibidache ravishing and choreographing each phrase, here questioning, there answering, now cajoling, facially animated, eyes and eyebrows speaking (the only things ever to matter in performance as Hilary Hahn tweeted the other day), all the while cherishing the partners of his imagination, adoration in every curve of the wrist, swelling nobility in every tutti, rhythm without end. Those familiar with his 1978 Enescu Romanian Rhapsody video from Bucharest will know the theatre on offer. He doesn’t expect his players to merely play, he gets them to live the moment and love the shiver, the before and after, each note wet with ink. The closing Annen-Polka, a many-dimensioned, bewitchingly-coloured, daringly cadenced journey, encapsulates the occasion. Four minutes of genius.

Haydn 2032 First there was Ernst Märzendorfer and the Vienna Chamber Orchestra (1967-71), a budget engineered rehearse/record Musical Heritage Society cycle that had limited circulation in America, not making it to Europe as a commercial package until 2019 (Scribendum SC818): one protracted tale of engaged performances, lost tapes, quality variable LP sources, and the belief of a rural East Sussex record enterprise. Next was high-profile, expensively promoted Antal Doráti with the emigré Philharmonia Hungarica on Decca (variously fresh, tired, indifferent), sleeve notes courtesy of H. C. Robbins Landon. Subsequently (1987-2001) Adam Fischer and the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, involvingly recorded in the Esterházy Palace, Eisenstadt (Brilliant Classics reissue, 99925). Other intégrales, complete or unfinished (mixed forces and conductors in the case of Naxos), have appeared en route or since. Giovanni Antonini’s ongoing period instrument cycle with Il Giardino Armonico (of which he was a founder member – flute/recorder – in Milan in 1985) and the bigger Kammerorchester Basel, pertinently complementing the symphonies and other incidentals with music by Haydn’s contemporaries, was launched by Alpha in 2014, with completion aimed for 2032, the tercentenary of the composer’s birth. The appeal of the videos, contrasting the ultra high-tech engineering and studio production values of the CD releases, is their ‘live’-grained immediacy – antiphonal violins, players standing, physical proximity  as well as location: the resonantly evocative Martinskirche Basel. Antonini’s Vivaldian silk-and-sabre style – drawn out adagios, fiery allegros, melodic intensification, shapely bass lines and inner parts, urgent attacks, forward woodwind balancing – has divided a minority of critics, one at least, on the other side of the pond, taking objection of the hung-drawn-quartered variety. Personally I’ve no problem with his musicality and dynamic, his sharply dramatised contrasts (belying his suited, studious exterior) having a visibly vitalising effect on musicians and listeners. Waiting to pounce, to reflect, searing one moment, dreaming the next, open to the overhangs of Baroque fantasy, he dusts off forgotten pages, giving them compelling currency, delighting in Haydn’s inventiveness as both architect and colouristic orchestrator. The early, experimental Fifteenth Symphony (circa 1760-61, transitioning the Morzin/Esterházy years) is beautifully poised, its detailing vibrant, the modest forces interacting, listening and watching as a vintage chamber ensemble might do. Revelatory. Sandrine Piau, in Haydn’s mature London scena Berenice, che fai? (videoed at a public concert in October 2018), is temperamentally superb, Antonini’s support – no baton, expressive hands – lithely buoyant.

Apotheosis of the Dance On the evening of 25 January and night of 26 January 1994, in the collegiate church of Sant Vicenç within the 9th century Catalonian fortress of Cardona, Jordi Savall and Le Concert des Nations recorded Beethoven’s Eroica, a 44-minute cleansing, A=430, which positively stormed into one’s conscience. ‘The trumpets soar from on high,’ I wrote subsequently, ‘horns bray, foreground kettledrums mark time, attack and conquer … ancient instruments of war and chase uniting in a noble, galloping galaxy of images – yesterday’s world from tomorrow’s man.’ Beethoven seen against a background of European strife and conflict courses rampantly and stridently through Savall’s Alia Vox readings of the symphonies (released 2020/22), obsessively the most timpani-biased interpretations in the catalogue. Savall’s aesthetic, what he wants to conjure, is clear. He identifies with E. T. A. Hoffmann, writing in 1810: “Beethoven’s instrumental music opens up to us the realm of the colossal and the immeasurable. Burning flashes of light shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we become aware of giant shadows rising and falling, steadily engulfing us and annihilating everything that is in us, and not only the pain of unending desire in which each pleasure is eclipsed and disappears no sooner than it emerges in joyful notes; and it is only in this pain, which consumes love, hope, and happiness but does not destroy them, and seeks to burst our breasts with a unanimous accord of all the passions, that we live on as enchanted beholders of the vision.” He speaks of the “inherent revolutionary vigour of Beethoven’s symphonies, the powerful multiple [voices] of the orchestra [generating] a perpetual alertness of the creative spirit which will never exhaust their youthfulness”. He reminds us, invoking Schindler, that “what Beethoven feared above all was confusion and that he did not want more than about sixty musicians for his symphonies”. (Moscheles’s 1841 translation of Schindler’s original Life of Beethoven actually reads: “Beethoven one day [made] the important declaration that he had not composed his Symphonies for such vast orchestras as that usually assembled for the Vienna Musical Society [the Imperial Redoutensaal in the Hofburg, with a 1.4 second reverb, seated around 1500 – though at least 3000 reportedly attended the premiere of the Eighth Symphony, the strings of the orchestra at 18+18+14+12+7 strength]; and that it never was his intention to write noisy music. He added that his instrumental works required an orchestra of about sixty performers only; for he was convinced that it was by such an orchestra alone that the rapidly-changing shades of expression could be adequately given, and the character and poetic subject of each movement duly preserved”.) The Festsaal of the Old University, where the Seventh was first heard in December 1813 at a charity event benefitting Austro-Bavarian soldiers wounded during Napoleon’s retreat at the Battle of Hanau less than six weeks earlier, hosted 1300 for Salieri’s 1808 performance of Haydn’s Creation.

Savall’s Beethoven cycle in the neo-Baroque Laeiszhalle Hamburg last October (capacity 2000 plus) was a distinctive affair. He’s now 80, cutting a relatively severe figure yet palpably alive to the music, eyes communicating, baton technique economical, score before him. His orchestra, a pedigree act finely coached, is broadly young, several of the players familiar from other European HIP groups. An extraordinary Seventh – double woodwind, natural horns and trumpets, hard-sticked period drums, strings at, antiphonal violins – brought the house down. Maybe it could have done marginally with the cannon-ball timpani of Koen Plaetinck remembered from an Insula Orchestra concert at La Seine Musicale in 2018. Maybe, energy levels stretched, the fff climax at the end might have been bigger. No matter. This was a maelstrom of dizzying tension and energy, ever more tightly coiled, taking the players to their physical, emotional and rhythmic limits, their glances as much a matter of disbelief as shared intoxicated pleasure. A bacchanalian ride. Tempos brisk but pliable, far from rigid – faster overall than Beethoven’s 1817 prescription in the Introduction and Finale, slower in the Allegretto and Scherzo (quick trios). All repeats. Home in under 39 minutes.

Friends, pianists, encores

●Chopin Mazurka in G minor Op.67/2. Nelly Akopian-Tamarina, Wigmore Hall. The first Chopin Mazurka I learnt to play, one late afternoon circa 1960, West London.

● Karl Fiorini Reflets flous. Charlene Farrugia, Wiener Konzerthaus. Valletta days, Vienna nights. “Pebbles dropped in the calm water of a lake … ripples abound … the surface becomes hazier.”

●Tchaikovsky Deux Morceaux Op.10. Dinara Klinton, Los Angeles. “The full moon stood high in the limpid sky … out there beyond the forests and fields lay all the shimmering, beckoning distance of infinity.”

●Schubert Wanderer Fantasy D 760. Herbert Schuch. Cornerstone of my cyclic technique classes Bohemian Rhapsody era.

●Grainger Ramble on the last love duet from Strauss’s Rosenkavalier. Ronald Stevenson at home, West Linton. London, 18 March 1968. A grey Monday afternoon. The Savage Club. First meeting with Ronald. A whisky to keep the cold at bay. Redolent of an old-world philosopher-artist, he speaks with a seasoned richness of language, the deliberated rhythm, the rhetoric of his delivery as imperious as the gravelled, woody, claret, urgently underlaid nuance of his Borders/Celtic burr.

Celibidache Christmas Cheer: Let’s lighten the mood and scintillate to Celibidache conducting Enescu’s First Romanian Rhapsody: now republished as a regular tonic.