Karl Amadeus Hartmann

Tragic Overture, Op.81
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58 [solo part played from the “A 82b” manuscript as emendated by the composer]
Lohengrin – Prelude to Act One
Symphony No.6

Gianluca Cascioli (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Ingo Metzmacher

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 11 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Ingo Metzmacher’s Proms are rarely less than arresting in terms of repertoire and performance, and this concert promised to a be a rewarding one. Certainly there was no lack of commitment in the tense, gritty Tragic Overture that began proceedings – taking in the piece’s relative extremes of grandeur and pathos that Brahms steadily works up to a culmination of avowedly Classical restraint.

The account of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto was never less than thought-provoking, but was correspondingly less than enthralling. Gianluca Cascioli had, on this occasion, opted to play the “A 82b” autograph of the piece (held in the Vienna Musikverein, and which memory suggests was recorded by Ukrainian pianist Mikhail Kazakevich over a decade ago) in which the piano part was re-worked by Beethoven to make it more brilliant. Maybe, too, to utilise the expanded compass of the evolving pianoforte, or as a now-lost arrangement. The outcome, in the first movement especially, makes more combative the interplay between soloist and orchestra – the melodic line of the piano part frequently elaborated and enriching the harmonic and rhythmic contours of the music to a degree, however, that promotes surface activity at the expense of the long-term structural cohesion that is a hallmark of Beethoven’s finest instrumental works.

Of course, Cascioli is hardly unjustified in performing a revision which seems incontrovertibly to be that of the composer, though it could be argued that such changes are in themselves provisional and that, moreover, it might have sounded more convincing had Cascioli’s limpid pianism been complemented by greater breadth of tone and clarity of formal thinking; the latter largely absent from the prettified conception that Cascioli brought to the later and more daring of Beethoven’s cadenzas. Nor did a brusque and strait-laced account of the brief second movement especially convince, though the finale found Cascioli marrying the textural accretions to more charged and involving music-making – finally suggesting why his individual and inquiring approach has won numerous plaudits over the last decade. It is also worth noting that, whatever his own view of this edition, Metzmacher’s handling of the orchestra was unfazed and at one with the pianist – concerto ‘accompaniment’ of the highest order.

That Metzmacher is also one of the most significant opera conductors at work today made his too hasty and unyielding run-through of the Prelude to “Lohengrin” – topped by ungrateful, too loud brass at the climax – the more disappointing. At any rate, it was an inauspicious preparation for the account of Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Sixth Symphony that followed. No other conductor has taken up this most recalcitrant of mid-twentieth century composers as determinedly as Metzmacher, and the extent of his commitment in this, Hartmann’s centenary year, has been as extensive as it has been gratifying – with almost all of the symphonic works featuring prominently in his concert schedule.

Composed during 1951-3, though based (as are all of Hartmann’s first six symphonies) on earlier material – in this instance, an unpublished symphonic work after Zola’s novel “L’Oeuvre” from 1938 – the Sixth is the most representative and immediate of the cycle. As elsewhere, Hartmann isolates and expands on the symphonic ‘middle movements’: thus an expansive yet flexible Adagio, proceeding in waves of intensity toward its seismic climax before a swift retreat, is followed by a ‘Toccata variata’ in which fugues of increasing motivic density and orchestral virtuosity are combined in a stretto of dizzying abandon. The presence of such composers as Bartók, Stravinsky and Hindemith, though seldom far away, is harnessed to a symphonic expression both consistent in itself and also uniquely of its time.

While no-one could accuse the present performance of sounding under-prepared, it did seem to skim over the surface of the music in a way one would not have expected. Thus the Adagio lacked a degree of dynamic contrast such that the barrage of percussion unleashed during its apex sounded a mite gratuitous, and the Toccata came over as too uniformly hectic for the textural contrast of each fugue fully to register – so denying the coda sufficient motivation to wrap up the work as decisively as it should. And though much of the playing was fully up to Hartmann’s very considerable demands, the BBC Symphony Orchestra as a whole seemed to have less sympathy for his idiom than the LondonPhilharmonic evinced in its account of the Third Symphony with Metzmacher earlier this year.

Not a failure as such, then, but given the inevitable paucity of airings that this work – and Hartmann’s symphonies in general – will receive here after 2005, one might have hoped for just that bit extra.

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