Saturday, October 20, 2007

CONCERT REVIEW: Frankfurt Radio and Paavo at the Royal Albert Hall
By Hugo Shirley

Prom 40: Frankfurt Radio Symphony/Paavo Järvi
Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn; Brahms: First Piano Quartet

Royal Albert Hall, 13 August 2007
This visit by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra under their principal conductor, Paavo Järvi, concentrated on the nineteenth-century Austro-German tradition, with a dash of twentieth-century colour in the form of Schoenberg's imaginative orchestration of Brahms' G minor Piano Quartet. Right from the slow introduction of Weber's Oberon overture, it was clear that this was a polished band. The opening horn solo was suave and technically secure and the wind and violin interjections playfully executed, while the main Allegro was given a highly fluid and enjoyable rendering.
Matthias Goerne, who seems to have suffered some sort of leg injury, made his entrance like the walking wounded. This was strangely appropriate for several of the songs he'd selected from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, dealing as they do with the grotesque futility of war. Goerne is a great communicator but unfortunately, right from the start of Der Schildwache Nacht, showed that his soft, grainy voice - hugely effective in quieter passages - was going to struggle to cut through the orchestra at full tilt.
That said, the control and sensitivity he brought to the more reflective passages was at times breathtaking. The beauty of his voice and his unexaggerated interpretation were particularly moving in the heartbreaking dialogue in Wo die schönen Trompeten and Urlicht, more usually sung by mezzo (as it appears in the 'Resurrection' Symphony).
Throughout, the orchestra playing was wonderfully vivid. In Lob des Hohen Verstandes the wind players seemed to be trying to outdo one another by showing how much wit and characterisation they could bring to each of their tongue-in-cheek solos while the raucous march episodes in Revelge were gloriously uncouth. Goerne tired slightly towards the end and the doubts about the basic ability of the voice to rise over a large orchestra remained. However, there were more than enough moments of great beauty, not to mention the sheer interpretative integrity of his performance, to allay these concerns.
The second half of the concert was given over to Schoenberg's 1937 orchestration of Brahms' First Piano Quartet. In his famous 1853 essay, Neue Bahnen, Schumann had hailed all Brahms' instrumental works as 'veiled symphonies' and Schoenberg's arrangement maybe gives us a taste of what sort of symphony the younger Brahms (the Brahms of what one biographer has termed the Vorbart - 'pre-beard' - period) might have produced had he not been so fixated with the Beethovenian inheritance.
That's not to say that Schoenberg's orchestration is in anyway an attempt to recreate Brahms' own manner with orchestration. In what was obviously a great labour of love, Schoenberg created a true orchestral showpiece, and if he used a few Brahmsian devices (the horns doubling soaring string lines, for example), he scored the piece in very much his own way for a much larger orchestra than Brahms would have employed (including a large percussion section, most obviously, with judiciously employed xylophone).
The slightly paradoxical effect of all this is that the bare sounds of the piano and strings of the original - which creates a particularly modern effect in the first movement - is filled out and almost smoothed over to create something more overtly romantic. The tonal splendour of the big, fruity sound the Frankfurt players produced, however, made any thoughts of 'authenticity' seem irrelevant.
Järvi's approach was broadly romantic and he pulled around the tempo a fair amount, perhaps speeding up a bit too much as the march was introduced in the third movement Andante con moto. The opening Allegro was given an essentially straight reading, as befits its tautly argued structure, and the Intermezzo gave the players a chance to show off their virtuosity in some of the more delicately scored passages, the horn solos, in particular, tossed off with hugely impressive swagger.
For the opening of the Andante, Järvi drew from his players a sound of astonishing richness that really allowed us to wallow in Brahms' flowing melodies before the outbreak of the extraordinary march sequence (not a million miles away, especially in Schoenberg's orchestration, from Mahler's martial outbreaks in the Des Knaben Wunderhorn songs of the first half).
Things reached fever pitch in the Alla zingarese finale. Here Schoenberg really pulls out all the stops with his orchestration, cranking up the pressure with one surprise in instrumentation after another. Of course, Brahms' original is a tour de force of rip-roaring gypsy exuberance but inevitably the four instruments of the original can't come close to the sonic variety of a full orchestra and Schoenberg is particularly masterful in adding layer upon layer of sound and additional counterpoint so that the whole movement is one long crescendo.
Järvi and his players fully rose to the challenge and the audience could not help but be caught up in it all, reacting with justly enthusiastic applause. Järvi's approach is, on the whole, one of seriousness (perhaps not helped by his passing resemblance, from a distance at least, to Vladimir Putin) so it was nice to see him smile after this and the beautifully playful rendition of Brahms' Sixth Hungarian Dance that was performed as an encore.

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