Phantastische Erscheinungen eines Themas von Hector Berlioz, Op.25 [excerpts]
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64
Hélène Grimaud (piano)
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Royal Albert Hall, London
Monday, September 05, 2011
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This Prom was originally planned to include a rare performance of Frankfurt-born Walter Braunfels’s Fantastic Appearances of a Theme by Hector Berlioz, or so the Proms Prospectus for this Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra appearance suggested. Although the Braunfels (therein estimated at 47 minutes) and the Beethoven would have made for an outsize first half, such length and juxtaposition is a Proms tradition. In the event we got only snippets of the Braunfels, 15 minutes’ worth, but in a recent interview Manfred Honeck declared it a great work, yet to fit it into a Pittsburgh concert a few months ago he had made his own performing edition, timed (very precisely) at 22 minutes. But why not respect the piece and plan around the size that Braunfels made it? All Honeck did at the Proms was to conduct the 30-second ‘Introduction’, the first (Theme) and fourth Appearances (Erscheinungen) and the ‘Finale’; that’s not an edition, that’s simply taking four from fourteen sections and hacking the work to death.
Braunfels (1882-1954) composed Fantastic Appearances between 1914 and 1917 (during which time he saw action in World War One), its premiere being in 1920 under Volkmar Andreae, the year that Braunfels's rather wonderful opera Die Vögel appeared. The Berlioz-inspired piece (from La Damnation de Faust) did well for performances in its early years, attracting conductors such as Furtwängler, Nikisch and, in New York, Bruno Walter. If it has now faded from view, at least there is a recording, a very good one, with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and Dennis Russell Davies (CPO 999 888-2); sadly though the ninth Erscheinungen is omitted (a scherzo and trio accounting for 26 pages of the score, not that CPO’s booklet-note writer knew of its excision) for the entirely spurious reason that it was sometimes excluded in those initial accounts. Davies’s version, already at 49 minutes, would obviously have been several minutes longer. Honeck’s truncation gave us a lopsided view of this skilful, imaginative, flair-filled creation (appealing to admirers of Max Reger’s and Richard Strauss’s orchestral works, and owing much to the former’s Hiller Variations and Mozart Variations). Frankly the idea of playing excerpts should have been dropped, for in this Pittsburgh presentation the slow fourth Appearance, however beautiful, seemed too long out of context, as did the swaggering finale in which trumpets and trombones were too loud. We need a complete recording and BBC Proms owes us the work in its entirety (would that be a UK premiere?); maybe Martyn Brabbins can do the honours, the first half of the concert being Boris Blacher’s Paganini Variations and Ernö Dohnányi’s Nursery Tune Variations (with ideally Steven Osborne as the witty and character-vivid pianist).
Following bowdlerised Braunfels, Hélène Grimaud deliberated with Beethoven’s opening solo, and she thoughtfully modulated elsewhere while being zesty and crisp if at times ungainly – with a moment of coming off the rails in the first movement – woodwinds too deferential to the piano’s up-front timbre. She was rather uniformly pacifying in the central Andante, the strings remaining too gruff and aggressive before taking a mannered to-nothing withdrawal.
And mannerisms abounded in the Tchaikovsky, which Honeck used for showmanship and orchestral virtuosity; no soul, no depth of feeling. Dynamic tweaks abounded – yes, these strings can play a deadly-hush pianissimo but without it illuminating the music and the clarinettists can raise their bells to make sure we don’t miss their twirls – and became affected early-on and more and more irksome. But what really sunk the performance was the coarse domination of the (technically perfect) brass – spiteful-sounding trumpets (four of them sometimes playing together rather than Tchaikovsky’s requested two), macho trombones and attention-seeking horns – Honeck visually whipping them up and obliterating everything else, perverse when the Pittsburgh strings are glorious (when audible), warm and silky as well as unanimous of phrase, amplitude, colour and deftness. Rarely has this symphony seemed so crude and emotionally empty. One enchanted moment though: William Caballero’s horn solo at the beginning of the Andante cantabile was astonishing for its sensitivity, poise and poeticism.
The first encore was an entr’acte from Bizet’s Carmen, sporting a lovely flute solo from Lorna McGhee (ex-BBC Symphony Orchestra), and the second was ‘Galop’ from Khachaturian’s music for Masquerade, predictably ‘in your face’ if brilliantly played, Michael Rusinek misusing his clarinet solo to ‘crossover’ to The Beatles’ When I’m Sixty-Four; might as well have done a lick of Back in the USSR. Although it hardly mattered by this point.