Music of Today & Mahler 5

Handshake After Shot
Night Scene

Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Baldur Brönnimann

Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor

Pekka Kuusisto (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 27 May, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Following the last “Music of Today”, an engaging programme of Steve Martland’s music, the Hungarian ‘picture’ offered by this MOT was equally welcome and began with a rather wonderful piece by Gyula Csapó (born 1955). Its title wasn’t explained in the composer’s note or in conversation with Julian Anderson (the other composers were present too). Csapo’s scoring includes a “cardboard box”, here a sturdy case on which David Corkhill beat-out some dead thumps. Maybe muted antiphonal trumpets, an oboe, organ drone (here a keyboard) and a box are not perhaps the most prepossessing line-up; aurally, however, Handshake After Shot proved a compelling piece in its simplicity, something of a memorial maybe, the trumpets not far away from Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, just much more restrained and floating, and the whole had a curiously liberating effect that haunts the imagination long after its four minutes have died away.

László Tihanyi is a year younger than Csapó. His Night Scene, through its title, establishes a relationship with Bartók; in fact, this piece for alto flute, bass clarinet, cello and piano has its premise in the first song of Schubert’s Winterreise (“Gute Nacht”) and has allusions to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in it heightened atmosphere and colour. The youngest composer here, born 1976, Balázs Horváth scores Symmetry-Asymmetry for flute, viola and harp, the scoring the preserve of Debussy and, indeed, Horváth’s second movement “copies the form of the first movement of Debussy’s Sonata for the same group of instruments.” Unfortunately, on a first hearing, this movement seemed devoid of substance and was certainly too long. The opening section was intriguing though, a metronome ticking live with the three musicians playing in different beats, which set up an agreeable mix of time-based allusions.

The main Philharmonia Orchestra concert began with a decidedly dubious account of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Pekka Kuusisto seriously compromised the first movement through his calculated, unconvincing breaking of phrases, distended pauses and, to make up for time thus lost, snatching at phrases – nothing to do with Tchaikovsky and everything to do with the mischievous Kuusisto. Things improved for the Canzonetta, quite simply played with some telling use of different vibrato. The finale (opening up the sometimes cut repetitive passages) had time on its side to be articulate and also had the advantage of effective dovetailing of episodes in a movement that can seem too sectional; yet Kuusisto couldn’t resist some note-picking on his way to the final fireworks. Hopefully he’ll grow out of his mannerisms – the greatest artists don’t need tricks. Vladimir Ashkenazy generously accompanied his soloist’s waywardness, but there was no true partnership. Kuusisto’s solo Bach encore made some points as to style – but like the concerto, it was so contrived.

Ashkenazy treated Mahler 5 as a real symphony, not as an excuse for indulgence or histrionics, and charted its dark to light scenario with certainty. For him, it seems, the pivotal moment is the end of the scherzo, which he drove fiercely to its conclusion, almost to the point of exorcism. With the proviso that sometimes the trumpets, trombones and timpani were simply too loud and dominating, textures and counterpoint were generally clearly articulated and vibrantly projected. While this symphony can be more psychologically complex and carry a wider brief, Ashkenazy’s honesty has its own validation. If the scherzo’s dance rhythms were a little literal, Ashkenazy then led an Adagietto that was virtually ideal in its flow (about 8 minutes) and tenderness – a real love-letter from Mahler to Alma – and a scintillating finale that had an insouciant lightness of touch until the flash-point of the triumphant coda that careered to the finishing post with utmost thrill.

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