Philharmonia Orchestra/Brüggen – 23 October

Beethoven
Coriolan – Overture
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
Berg
Violin Concerto (to the memory of an angel)

Benjamin Schmid (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Frans Brüggen


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 23 October, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Of recent Philharmonia Orchestra performances of Berg’s concerto, the most popular piece of twelve-tone music and a modern classic, the one by Kyung-Wha Chung and Dohnányi in 1999 lingers persuasively in the memory. Much – perhaps too much – was hoped for on this occasion. Benjamin Schmid is a very fine player, technically secure, and a musician to his fingertips (as was clear from his outstanding Mozart with the Philharmonia last year); Brüggen too had much to say about Berg’s Bach-haunted concerto, not least the way each section elided seamlessly into the next. However, the sum was less than the parts.

The concerto is an elegy for Manon Gropius, Alma Mahler’s daughter by Walter Gropius, who died in 1935 as a result of polio. The concerto, the antithesis of the late-Romantic violin concerto, inhabits an elegiac world and culminates in the consolation of Bach’s chorale “Es ist genug” (It is enough). Before we reach that final moment of catharsis, there is a high degree of angst; unless that has been present earlier, the final solace can seem too easily won. In this – for the most part – beautifully focussed performance, angst took a back seat, the concerto treated as a chamber concerto and the emotions understated. This said, Schmid played the accompanied cadenza that opens the concerto’s second part quite magnificently and the orchestra accompanied throughout with tact and discretion; however, because of emotional reticence, the concerto failed to make its full impact.

The Eroica and Coriolan Overture were another matter. Brüggen and the Philharmonia gave us a wonderful performance of Beethoven 7 last season and this was equally fine, in some ways even finer. Comparisons with Brüggen’s recent Barbican performance of the Eroica with the Orchestra of the 18th Century were instructive; the Philharmonia’s playing was perhaps even more exciting.

For the most part this was a ’quiet’ Eroica – no, not a contradiction in terms – conducted with the sort of patience and integrity that perhaps only an older conductor can bring. In the first movement (repeat taken), the all-important distinctions in markings – forte, double forte, sforzando and sforzando piano – were precisely observed; dynamic levels were for the most part a couple of notches below those to which we are accustomed.

However what was wholly remarkable about Brüggen’s conducting was his ability to build long-term structure and vary tensions; by the time we reached the aural side-slip into the first movement’s gigantic coda, we had traversed a symphonic landscape on a hitherto unimagined scale.

The funeral march, taken more quickly than usual, was initially understated until its contrapuntal central section welled up so naturally to an overwhelming climax; the end of the movement’s broken phrases found an instinctive pulse – collectively felt rather than conducted – that elicited profound silence from the audience. The Scherzo went off in one breath and packed a terrific punch, and the Finale really did sound a full counterpart to the first movement in emotional weight.

Coriolan opened the concert and reminded of Brüggen’s instinctive feel for the rhetoric of this music, smaller in scale than we are accustomed to, but with pauses perfectly judged and momentum achieved by common understanding rather than imposed. When the final bars were reached, tapering off into sullen pizzicato silence, there was a sense of the music having run its course, all passion spent, which was surely absolutely psychologically right.

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