BBCSO/Ono – 6 May

A String around Autumn *
Symphony No.7

Norbert Blume (viola) *

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Kazushi Ono

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 6 May, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Were there a classical music equivalent to the Razzies, the awards traditionally handed out the night before the Oscars for the worst movies of the year, this concert would surely win hands down. Mahler’s Seventh is Mahler’s most nightmarish symphony; in this case it exceeded all expectations.

Have you ever watched an actor who has learnt his lines working his way with evident relish through a role of which he clearly has not the slightest understanding? So it was in this case. Ono has a serviceable enough stick technique to get an orchestra to play together for most of the time. He appears to have strong convictions about the music he conducts.

What went so drastically wrong? Mahler’s scores are marked in painstaking detail. Mahler was, after all, perhaps the greatest conductor of his generation, knew exactly what he wanted, scored accordingly, adjusted markings in the light of performances, and was well-able to second-guess what other conductors were likely to do. Hence his scores are peppered with multiple, useful and practical instructions – such as ’nicht eilen’ (don’t hurry), which any conductor ignores at his or her peril.

With Ono the symphony’s first movement opened at a reasonable if swift tempo but rapidly degenerated into an undifferentiated grey mush of noise, consistently teetering on the edge of the tolerable and with little or no attempt to control dynamics other than in the most generalised way. Mahler scores so that different instruments are frequently playing simultaneously at different dynamic levels; the individual instrumental lines are also minutely annotated as regards phrasing, often from piano to forte and back again within a couple of bars. If the basic dynamic levels are simply too high to start with, nothing can save a performance; a wealth of detail goes by the board – as happened here.

When, aurally battered, one arrived at the first ’Nachtmusik’ movement looking for some respite; the upshot was that there was not the slightest possibility of it taking place in the shadows. Everything was trundled out at a monochromatic mezzo-forte, and above, with no sense of the music’s restrained inwardness.

Even worse was to come in the Scherzo which Mahler marks ’flowing but not quickly’ – he actually underlines ’not quickly’ in the score. The reason is not hard to fathom. Played too fast the swirling triplets at the core of this movement – some of them marked legato and some staccato within the same bar – go for nothing (as do the strings’ ’hairpin’ dynamics within the bar). Ono took an absurd speed – the movement came across like an accompaniment to a demented “Keystone Cops” silent movie. By the close the orchestra sounded so unsettled as to be close to breakdown.

Passing over the second ’Nachtmusik’, the Finale at least provided some unintentionally light entertainment, a source of innocent merriment one might almost say. Here Ono’s observation of Mahler’s many instructions regarding character bordered on a sort of inspired literalness, ’Breit’ (Broad) being read as slow down to half speed, which then caused extreme problems seven bars later when ’Feierlich’ (Solemn) was reached. Where do you go when you have already halved the tempo because you have misread an indication such as ’Breit’ as a tempo instruction? One would like to say “back to base tempo”, but since one hadn’t been established this was an impossibility. Funniest of all were the unison string passages taken at something like double their normal speed and sounding for all the world like a particularly wicked parody of Sullivan’s Overture to his and Gilbert’s Mikado … now that was meant to be a parody!

In the first half an excellent performance of Takemitsu’s viola concerto – a gentle, unassertive piece that paints the most finely drawn of internal landscapes. Norbert Blume had obviously internalised the piece too; a very full BBCSO accompanied with tact and discretion.

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