In programming terms, Wagner and Brahms might appear to be ideal stablemates. Full-blooded German Romanticism, you could argue. In fact, in Vienna, the hub of the musical world in the latter part of the 19th century, they were polar opposites, with their respective supporters all daggers drawn. What was it that had the two camps seething with scarcely contained mutual contempt? One of the many ironies of this particular episode is that Wagner, Brahms’s senior by more than twenty years, was actually the leader of the musical avant-garde, whereas the younger composer was regarded as the more conservative figure. Experimentation was pitched against tradition.
We heard a lot of the originality in the older composer’s writing in this performance of the Overture and Venusberg Music from Tannhäuser, given by the London Symphony Orchestra and Nathalie Stutzmann, making her debut appearance. She certainly has a keen ear for orchestral colour, relishing the varied sonorities and bright flashes of pigmentation from wind and brass, especially the will-o’-the-wisp effects in the Venusberg Music. Although there was plenty of youthful élan and no absence of momentum, I felt that too often Stutzmann’s head seemed to be ruling her heart. This is music in which the sensual is contrasted with the spiritual, the carnal with the metaphysical. The opening chorale from horns, clarinets and bassoons was too loud to suggest moments of inward prayer, and I became increasingly troubled by her predilection for insistent timpani (a problem in the following concerto too, less so in the symphony). Despite the admirable clarity of textures, a little magic – and sensual indulgence – was missing.
It was Mendelssohn who first conducted the half-hour long Wagner piece as a stand-alone item in 1846, so it made good sense to have Alina Ibragimova perform his most famous fiddle concerto as the musical sandwich here. She started off as swiftly and urgently as I have ever heard it played, making me wonder if we were about to hear an unusually dramatic and pressing interpretation. In fact, she soon relaxed: this contrast became a feature of her reading, pushing this concerto away from strictly classical proportions and towards a more indulgent Romantic vein. She was often quite daring in her choice of dynamics and speeds, aiming for a maximum degree of flexibility, living entirely in the moment. Towards the upper end of the dynamic scale her instrument became steel-edged, almost to the point of fierceness, but it was in those moments of hushed and mellow reflection that Ibragimova was at her most affecting, not least in the warm and gentle embrace of the slow movement. Despatched with a fine combination of panache and husky sensuousness, the cadenza offered an impressive display of her sure-footed technique. Perhaps the Finale could have sparkled a little more, though the main melody was quickly airborne, with intermittent touches of impishness, Stutzmann providing attentive support throughout.
Living up to expectations is tough at the best of times. As Jane Austen puts it in Sense and Sensibility, “To wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect.” Quickly seen as the heir apparent to Beethoven, this imposed an impossible burden on Brahms. The composer was already forty-three by the time the gestation period for his First Symphony came to an end, and partly because of a perceived thematic resemblance to the Choral Symphony, it was quickly dubbed ‘Beethoven’s Tenth’.
There was more than a degree of Beethovenian gruffness in Stutzmann’s interpretation of this symphony, a sense of a rough diamond being polished to the point where it can glitter and shine. She has a singer’s ear for cantabile string lines, and it was noticeable how much attention she was devoting to her LSO players, coaxing, caressing, imploring and occasionally tempering their response. What emerged in the first movement though, given without the exposition repeat and without the added benefit of antiphonal violins, was a lean and muscular sound, the brisk basic pulse taking the argument forward with clear-eyed determination. However, she did linger at times, pausing to admire the scenery, rather than keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead.
As the symphony progressed, I couldn’t help feeling that this mixture of full-steam-ahead and moulded expressiveness, most obviously evident in a number of exaggerated rallentandos and an unmarked broadening in the coda to the final movement, left a tantalising question-mark over this composer’s inherent character. Brahms the Classicist or Brahms the Romantic? Stutzmann appeared to suggest that he was both.
I was expecting more to be made of the sostenuto marking to the slow movement, where the initial oboe solo was all but hurried along, and the music never achieved a feeling of rapt inwardness, yet at its close there were fine contributions from the leader and principal horn. The C-minor introduction to the Finale was spacious without being ominous, the pizzicatos a little too regular to suggest portent, the gloom not fully realised, with little of what Tovey calls “human terror and expectation”. As the rich glow of both first and second horns yielded to the great string melody that dominates this final movement, I was hoping that Stutzmann might give us more of a sense of exultation at the daybreak that dispels darkness. When it came, the theme was voiced simply, almost reverentially, and its hymn-like quality never really morphed into the jubilation that should transform a landscape in which human resolution ultimately triumphs over the forces of Fate.
If you wanted to tease friends about the provenance of a particular string quartet, you could do worse than play them the opening bars of Mendelssohn’s Sixth String Quartet. Very few, I suspect, apart from cognoscenti, would come up with the name of the correct composer. It is an astonishing work, arresting from the first moments to the last, and given a most sympathetic reading in this pre-concert event by the Marmen Quartet, recent major prizewinners at the Bordeaux and Banff International String Quartet Competitions.
The last major work that Mendelssohn wrote, it was composed in a period of personal anguish and turmoil engendered by the sudden death of his beloved sister Fanny. The Marmen Quartet’s superb articulation gave full voice to the nervy, jagged edges of the outer movements with their prevailing restlessness and febrile intensity. This is tough, uncompromising music without any of the emotional restraint found in the composer’s other works, heightened by the dark and gloomy key of F-minor. Yet thrilling though the explosions of anger – none more so than the Presto section of the first movement, driven along thrillingly – were, this Quartet’s artistry emerged just as strongly in the Adagio third movement. Here, the first violin captured a sense of vulnerability, revealing the inner workings of a grief-stricken mind, in the soaring lyrical lines, offset against the darker, woody hues of viola and cello. Equally powerful were the many spectral effects, accentuated in dynamics pared down to little more than a murmur, with the concluding pizzicatos of the Scherzo fading ghost-like into the shadows of the night.