Prom 33 – Rameau to Webern

Hippolyte et Aricie – Suite
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

Viktoria Mullova (violin)

Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen
Daniel Harding

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 12 August, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The splendid chamber orchestra sponsored by the city of Bremen is a virtuoso, versatile and chameleon-like band. Here is a group of musicians that can play Rameau with infectious communication while convincing that short-bow attack and no vibrato is absolutely right for this music; a tangy soundworld the result. In its divertissement, Rameau’s first opera, fitting nicely into this season’s Greek theme, is typical of him and French opera of the time (Hippolyte was first produced in 1733). What a fecund imagination Rameau had. Each dance seems to tread new ground – the range is wide, the scoring is vivid; Rameau’s piquant use of wind ravishes the ear. The ’Deuxième Air des Chasseurs en rondeau’ from Act Four proved especially seductive. I missed the harpsichord. Perhaps I should say that I didn’t miss it being carried off the platform, but that I never actually heard it (properly) in the performance!

No balance problems in the concerto, a reference to the orchestra’s chamber proportions and smaller than usual (in this music) number of strings. Indeed, an appropriate translucency was conjured with details clarified across the spectrum. Curious that Harding bunched the first and second violins together (possibly for a little more volume) and sat the violas outside-right. The three basses (adding one to the Rameau complement) moved to the right, with the timpani; it seemed a shame to lose antiphonal possibilities.

Viktoria Mullova, long-associated with the Sibelius, was in typically patrician form, gentle and expressive initially, bewitching in fact, and with all the steel and muscle needed for pyrotechnics. For all its seriousness, this is also a concerto with an element of showmanship. It’s this that Mullova tones down by being so musically ’straight’. In the finale, one wished her machine-like display would come off the rails slightly for something more relished. The slow movement seemed to drag, too consciously beautiful before becoming climactically overwrought. No concessions were made to dynamic contrasts.

Harding returned to divided violins and left-positioned basses (still three) for Beethoven 7, which left me cold, unmoved and a tad cynical. Nothing wrong with the performance as such, which was of total conviction, with playing of sensitivity and athleticism in what was Harding’s last appearance as the orchestra’s Music Director. The problem was its alignment with authenticity, which seems the norm rather than the exception now. It would be foolish to quibble with Harding’s good intentions. Here was the anticipated ’historically aware’, fleet, rapid-fire, all-repeats rendition. So many possibilities were lost in the flurry. No vibrato might be ’correct’ but it palled and irritated. Tempos might be metronomically accurate but ’baby and bath water’ came to mind. With Bärenreiter’s spruce edition now in place, Beethoven symphony performances are becoming worryingly similar. Recent recorded and live high-profile Beethoven cycles have disappointed – Abbado (bland and one-dimensional), Rattle (inconsistent) and Gatti (who attempted a two-world symbiosis and achieved neither). There are exceptions: Roger Norrington’s new Hänssler versions, using modern instruments, also without vibrato and up to speed, seem to cut through editorial red-tape to get to the heart of the music in the most thrilling way.

From Harding, the ’Allegretto’ had an attractive pallor, yet such austerity would have had more impact as novelty rather than norm; although he also gave the impression of handling extremely precious porcelain. You can drop things in Beethoven! Harding drove the Scherzo convincingly. It should be the fastest movement; here it had at least two competing companions. Harding’s ’Scherzo & Trio’ tempo-relationship wasn’t quite in sync, the latter presented as a halfway house between the rhetoric of such chaps as Furtwängler, Jochum and Klemperer and the ’straight through’ approach of Toscanini. My regard for the latter has waned severely over the years, but he found the indivisibility of these sections to perfection.

The Kammerphilharmonie’s chameleon qualities cited earlier extend to Webern. For an encore, the strings played (unannounced) the second of his Five Pieces, Op.5 – exquisite music, exquisitely performed. Warmly received too, a perfect example of ’blind’ audience acceptance. Rameau and Webern took the palm tonight – it’s not often these composers share the same sentence.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Saturday 16 August at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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