Symphonic Metamorphoses of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Symphonic Dances, Op.45
Henning Kraggerud (violin)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 26 February, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Never judge a book by its cover. Its pages might surprise you. Cumbersome the title might be – if exact – but Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (1943) is just bursting with brilliance and joie de vivre. Unfortunately, Hindemith (1895-1963) is in serious need of reappraisal. That the music of one of last century’s great composers has somewhat fallen from view is very sad, the creator of Mathis der Maler (opera and symphony), the Opus 49 Concert Music (strings and brass), an impressive Symphony in E flat (which Riccardo Muti conducts, so there’s a suggestion for the next time he’s with the Philharmonia), as well as splendid concertos for violin and for cello. And there’s more from where those came from!
Meanwhile, this matinee performance of the Metamorphoses (based on some of Weber’s piano music and his score for Turandot) was only a partial interpretative success, although its many executive pitfalls were well negotiated by the Orchestra. Vasily Petrenko’s tempos were awry in the first two movements: significantly under in the first to the point of deconstruction – articulate though – and too fast in the brass- and percussion-fuelled second, players put under unnecessary pressure, the music losing shape, and the jazzy riffs, led by trombones, all but squeezed dry. Things improved with the third-movement Andantino, sultry and warmly expressive and finding in Juliette Bausor an ‘incredible flutist’. The finale chatted garrulously to its exuberant concluding flourishes.
In Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, Henning Kraggerud was replacing Valeriy Sokolov who was replacing James Ehnes. Kraggerud has a very recommendable recording of the Sibelius on Naxos. Having compelled attention with his opening ethereal call and established an emotionally charged – nay, impassioned – conviction to the solo part, Kraggerud became less compelling as this concert performance went on. It was partly his excessive and unvaried vibrato; it was partly too restless an approach (the slow movement suffered in particular due to a lack of respite); but it was in the finale – taken too fast, with no appreciation of Sibelius’s qualifying ‘ma non tanto’ marking – that Kraggerud, entirely through self-infliction (unless Petrenko was culpable), found himself floundering with technical difficulties and pinched and dodgy notes, he and the orchestra adrift for the ultimate chord. An encore was not warranted, although Kraggerud’s intense playing (of a Sonata-movement by Ysaÿe, I guessed, but it was something of his own) was strangely eloquent and he was restored to the favour he enjoyed when opening the Concerto.
Rachmaninov’s swansong masterpiece was given an incisive and with-relish account. Petrenko was just a little hasty with the opening movement – Rachmaninov’s Non Allegro marking is rightly cautionary (Eugene Ormandy, the work’s first conductor, gets the perfect tempo on his never-bettered recording) – and some figures were not so clean – but there was a compensatory emotional edge (although here and elsewhere, the trombonists were very domineering, to detrimental effect) and Simon Haram offered a soulful saxophone solo. The second-movement waltz was especially compelling, expressively stretched and persuasively so. The danger of the finale, a ride to the abyss, didn’t quite emerge fully – Petrenko not going for the jugular come the hurtling final bars (although the movement’s central section, very spacious, was full of communicative curves). There remains the textural conundrum that is the final gong-stroke, whether it should be a long diminuendo to silence or an abrupt cut-off (Ormandy, who enjoyed the composer’s friendship and admiration, does the latter), but if you’re going for the ‘solo’ you need an audience that isn’t going to intrude too early with paws together…