Violin Concerto in D, Op.61
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 5 March, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
This concert brought Ingo Metzmacher to the podium for his annual concert with the LPO: one featuring a composer whom this enterprising conductor had made something of a cause over the last decade. That the centenary of his birth falls this year is all the more reason to investigate the music of Karl Amadeus Hartmann – whose name, if at all familiar, is on account of his principled stance against Nazism during the period of the Third Reich, and the status of an ‘internal exile’ he chose for himself in his home city of Munich. A potent influence on Germany’s cultural regeneration after 1945, Hartmann has been little heard outside of his native country since his death 42 years ago, so this scheduling of one of his major symphonic statements was a timely opportunity for reassessment.
Actually, two opportunities – as Metzmacher opened with the early symphonic poem Miserae at short notice. Too short, perhaps, for the players – as this restive and frequently scrappy reading did not show the piece to best advantage. Premiered in Prague during 1935, this was initially regarded by the composer as his ‘first symphony’, until a radical post-war overhaul of his output confined it to the archive to await posthumous revival. Which was worth it, less through any startling originality (thescore abounds in fairly literal references to Webern, Janáček and Honegger among others), than because of the confidence with which Hartmann melds his disparate material into a sonata design of taut energy and ominous atmosphere. This performance was at its best in the simmering slow music that opens the piece and returns, intensified, after the first fast section. This latter, and its climactic successor, evinced a degree of ‘scrambling’ that could only be the outcome of unfamiliarity – while conveying an immediacy not inappropriate for a work which, dedicated to victims of political persecution at the Dachau labour camp, set forth its provocative stance in no uncertain terms.
The genesis of the first six of Hartmann’s eight symphonies from symphonic works written prior to, or during the 1939-45 conflict is a complex and fascinating instance of a composer transforming his music from out of an outer ‘social’ as well as an inner ‘spiritual’ need. Suffice to say here that the Third Symphony was fashioned from two earlier pieces during 1948-9 (thus placing it chronologically after the Fourth Symphony), and embodies his concept of continuity through contrast to a palpable degree. The first movement is itself in two large parts: a Largo – mainly for strings – of Brucknerian gravitas, followed by an Allegro whose ‘virtuoso fugue’ designation underlines both its intricacy and its driving energy. The second movement is a powerfully-wrought Adagio whose stormy initial stages effect a central climax of tragic import, before winding down to an emotionally-drained conclusion.
No mistaking here that the LPO was in control of an idiom not so much difficult as elusive, though having Metzmacher (who has recorded a complete cycle of Hartmann symphonies with the Bamberg Symphony) at the helm gave the performance the best possible chance of success. The Largo – with its succession of solo double bass (underpinned by funereal timpani), solo string quartet, then full strings – was fastidiously phrased, and if the fugue that follows threatened at times to run away with itself, overall tension was soundly maintained. Even finer was the Adagio, in which Metzmacher strove to keep a certain expressive depth in reserve so that the closing pages – isolated sounds echoing into silence – became the culmination of the work; strings outlining the shape of the double bass idea as if to suggest that a tentative new beginning had been reached with the symphony’s coming ‘full circle’.
A pity that a sizeable number of the audience were not there to hear it, having left after Midori’s account of the Beethoven concerto. Two decades after she arrived on the international scene, Midori continues to perplex as an artist. Technique is there in spades – as, unlike with other present-day virtuosi, is a scrupulous awareness of dynamics given in the score rather than as would be preferred by the soloist. Yet the inwardness and refinement of her playing often lacked any deeper intensity, with much of the opening movement remaining expressively ‘in neutral’. Interpretatively, the Larghetto and finale were rather more interesting: the former’s variations rendered with due poise and the latter initiating some robust exchanges that Metzmacher seized on gratefully. As a performance, however, it was a good deal less engaging than one that he and the LPO gave with Kyung-Wha Chung some years ago, and one came away admiring Midori’s musicianship but unmoved by her artistry.
No matter, this was Hartmann’s night – as Metzmacher doubtless intended it to be, and hopefully we will not have to wait until 2013 before the next presentation of his music on the South Bank.