Clarinet Concerto in A, K622 Mahler
Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor
Michael Collins (clarinet)
Vienna Symphony Orchestra
Fedoseyev conducts the VSO - 12th May
Sunday, May 12, 2002 Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed by Bill Newman
The Vienna Symphony Orchestra is a rare visitor to this country. Russian Chief Conductor Vladimir Fedoseyev is less so, usually as an interpreter-supreme in his own country’s masterworks.
To be more correct the genial Michael Collins was performing the Mozart on a basset clarinet for which it was original composed. Supported by one of those intriguing unfolding devices that connects with the back of the instrument and stems down to a circular rest at floor level, Collins was able to position himself comfortably, with ample opportunity to nod his head vigorously to the first violins while turning to the conductor and grinning wryly during orchestral tuttis.
It was one of those performances that could have been played in his sleep, sounding beautifully natural and songlike in every respect; the larger instrument’s dimensions producing rich and rounded bass notes that were always pleasing to the ear, while mid- and top-range fluency remained unimpaired.
The opening movement was taken at a moderate ’Allegro’ finely judged throughout, those warm-sounding Vienna strings blending superbly with Collins’s loving, subtle inflections, while the perky ’Finale’ could hardly have been bettered in terms of humour and subtle shifts of emphasis. The principle glory is the gorgeous slow movement – here especially slow in the form of a retrospect for past composing achievements, its main-subject pianissimo repeat sounding particularly beautiful.
Mahler 5 is a transitory work, if ever there was one. Its sudden switch away from the religioso-nature standpoints of his previous symphonic works to the more clearly-defined battle of Mahler’s own personality versus the joys and trials of life itself includes premonitions of his own early death. Each and every performance requires a stylised approach in accordance with his copious score markings, and an understanding of how the music should sound and hang together based on a close study of each of the movement’s demands in relation to the whole.
To be truthful there are no great Mahler conductors today of the calibre of Walter, Mengelberg, Barbirolli and Horenstein. Mahler’s symphonic message and outlook has become so designated throughout Europe, the Americas and Asian countries that new thought processes have tended to interfere with earlier stylistic conventions. Personally, I cannot accept the unusually fast, sometimes brutal approach of Claudio Abbado. Riccardo Chailly, on the other hand, is all for linear beauty, dramatic surges and Italianate climaxes, yet Daniele Gatti is much more authentic in his handling of hesitancies, architectural build-up and balance of complex scoring.
Opposing viewpoints should also be taken into context. After my initial introduction to the symphony with Fritz Stiedry conducing the BBC Symphony in the ’forties, Hermann Scherchen’s 1952 Vienna State Opera Orchestra recording (just re-issued on WESTMINSTER 471 268-2), despite blemishes, thrust another viewpoint into my opinions which still has relevance today. His tyrannical way with the second movement has never been equalled. One could argue his over-mannered treatment of the ’Scherzo’ (not cut as he would later), the slowness of the ’Adagietto’ (which would get much slower) and the freneticism of the final movement, but this was performance of real character, the antithesis of Walter’s magnificent New York recording.
Leonard Bernstein’s Vienna Philharmonic performance at the Proms – out-classing his Sony and DG recordings – renewed my faith in those earlier performances – until I heard the Czech Peter Altrichter perform the work with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. I admired a recent Royal Festival Hall performance by the Russian Yakov Kreizberg with the Philharmonia Orchestra for the superb playing, and what I considered a general assessment of the music’s correct style and clarity in concept – to the amusement of a colleague who was there and one who had read a newspaper review.
A warm sheen of string tone, some capable wind principals and a decent timpani player measure the Vienna Symphony’s calibre as an orchestra. The brass department is not of identical excellence. An amalgam of cracked notes, imprecise and plain wrong entries marred Fedoseyev’s calm and precise direction and understanding of the work’s mood and metre changes: fig.18 in the opening movement was the first instance of being behind the beat. Pianissimo violins (6) really were not quiet enough, with a lack of pinpointing in accompanying winds and trumpets. Somehow, one admired the endeavour without relishing overall results.
The conductor allowed his players to tune at the close of the movement, thus destroying the element of surprise at the start of the second. Mahler’s fiendish cross rhythms (figs.2-5) found out weaknesses, too, in the second movement, but the conductor’s clever broadenings brought steadiness to bear in the remainder. First violins, cellos, violas, seconds, left to right on the platform, resulted in the luxury of Mahler’s antiphonal scoring sounding at its best in many of the phantomesque passages between 5 and 12.
The pivotal springiness of the ’Scherzo’, with its exact emphasis on dotted crotchets and minims in an extended melodic framework, is Mahler at his finest. Totally understood by Barbirolli, the lilt is very Viennese in Ländler fashion and imperceptibly erotic-passionate at the same time. The beauty is in the mastery of scoring, something that should be in the souls of the VSO, but I wonder how often it plays this music. The solo horn was fine, but the section en masse was suspect, although tempi changes are hazardous throughout.
Kreizberg’s ’Adagietto’ (approximately 8 minutes) was more flowing and better voiced than Fedoseyev, who at 11 minutes ruined the feeling of continuity by dragging back the tempo (2-3) in the high violin phrasing of the counter subject. Surely they didn’t require phrasing queues? It appeared so.
The ’Rondo-Finale’ began well, first and second violins bouncing their themes across in riotous fashion with lower strings colouring the middle of the orchestra. At some places the orchestra appeared tired, but the end was full of the usual excitement.
For an encore we were entertained with Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz. I could not fail to be amused by the audience breaking into laughter, then applause, about 30 seconds in. The Japanese lady seating beside me said “Oh! We heard this on television!” Then proceeded to hum along.