The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

RSO Berlin: Warm leftovers - Marek Janowski conducts Brahms. Viviane Hagner, violin. Konzerthaus Berlin. 06.03.10

It is well understood that Marek Janowski specializes somewhat in the German romantic repertoire, including Brahms, which he has regularly programmed in Berlin, Geneva, and Pittsburgh. His interpretation of the four Brahms symphonies with Pittsburgh is available today on three audiophile cd’s. All heard here revealed acceptable, even quite good familiarity with the sound world of Brahms. Good blend between dark in color RSO Berlin winds, brass and somewhat lean string section was readily apparent.

The fine Munich born violinist Viviane Hagner was soloist. If still a bit green to have come up with yet a fully formed interpretation of the Beethoven concerto she played well with Chailly and Leipzig three summers ago at the Proms, I doubt it likely that one can hear any better from either Hilary Hahn, even today, or Steinbacher. (Most memorable was the Brahms Fourth that Chailly conducted right afterwards). Ms. Hagner certainly has some interpretative ideas about the Brahms that are worth keeping around, but a couple of elements here seemed to constantly get in the way. One embraces the dark color of her tone, the clarity through trills in the upper register, supple handling of line and phrasing, all virtues - all during her best playing for this, on display.

However, this could not have been one of Hagner’s better performances of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Janowski opened the orchestral exposition with broad shape to the opening theme, violas with a fast vibrato just blending almost enough with the horns of RSO Berlin. Segue into first ritornello then revealed strain at maintaining line; same held true for transition into D Minor segue into solo exposition. Hagner entered dramatically enough, but having to underline excessively her bow shifts to match what RSO Berlin strings had just done. Other evidence, not for reasons of technical insecurity on Hagner’s part, of the line getting stuck on finessing gesture tended to accumulate, after sweet tracing of line and warm tone for main two themes respectively. Given that things had taken on a sluggish, at times lumpy pace through this –Brahms’s line, as he composed this, being in the orchestral part – it became hard to relax more into the second theme than Hagner revealed here.

Janowski’s subito allegro to start the ritornello was easy to find undercutting to Hagner after stodgily paced A Minor reprise of the D Minor transition into the solo exposition. It seemed a little funny, odd that Janowski did not sustain the new pace through it very well, but he was fortunate to find someone as conceding as Hagner starting off the Development section. The feeling of any center of gravity under Hagner’s alternation of octaves and half-tones just about close to vanished, leaving Hagner, let’s say, a bit high and dry. Underlining the horns’ segue into the Recapitulation made for cheap enough rhetoric indeed.

Diminuendo back-phrase into the second theme from RSO Berlin strings sounded truly provincial, and Hagner into D Minor transition into pre-cadenza ritornello made it obvious that she had caught some malaise as well, helping to make a parking lot out of it all. Letting know who is in charge once more, Janowski indulged himself with a fresh subito allegro for cadenza preceding ritornello then had his strings hatchet crudely the opening theme, which then had Hagner motivated to do the same thing to open the cadenza.

In keeping with Janowski’s interpretation of this, Hagner then began, instead of just playing the opening of the Joachim cadenza, scrupulizing it - ultimately resulting in tense bow arm for rapid high arpeggio in thirty-seconds working toward its conclusion. High trills toward end, so detached, took on a disembodied quality. She eventually made her last reprise of opening theme soar, succeeding soggily bathetic solo bassoon and horn, hard enough this way to tell apart, then followed by worked, choppy Animato to follow her last moment of eloquence and end a really broadly paced first movement.

Equally bathetic was the constant sag within melodic lines from oboe to start the Adagio, later from others – even not waiting until ends of long phrases to so indulge. Hagner started off and continued here well, though not as so convinced by the cloying effect of it all. Hagner’s handling of the middle F-sharp minor section was the very model however of understatement; whether unwittingly or not, it seriously undercut what Janowski was doing. The line from him underneath her literally almost went completely asleep. Pacing here was not so slow; it was in maintaining things well that there was so much lapse. Hagner infused making transition back to oboe melody with some life; her doing so undercut that there was orchestrally any formal concept at work here at all. Hagner started to concede more to Janowski, letting reprise of opening melodic lines sag – then almost all sense of correct pitch towards making final cadence effective went out of the winds of RSO.

Janowski’s faux attempt at light touch to start the finale was just that - self-conscious regroupings of so much broken phrasing prominent. Accenting often to follow got slightly misplaced, with awkward coming off two ritornelli almost dislodging Hagner’s handling of cadenza (-like) passage-work. Nevertheless, she maintained good poise through them. Certainly some strain was felt in making smooth enough transition into ritornello before the main brief cadenza here, and then eventually Janowski ended what he had helped make quite a dispiriting affair by parking the closing chords to the finale, same as with ending the first movement.

After clumsily almost lopping off first loud half-cadence, Janowski finally decided to let big introductory statement to open the Brahms First Symphony throb for its first reprise from the pitch of G. Pacing throughout was even, brisk, but opening of the Exposition revealed little animation from within, even with what lift and nudge Janowski may have given the surface - with occasional intrusive accenting to follow. Second theme was warmly achieved - followed by odd rushing of downbeat into triplets (that Janowski self-consciously corrected during the Recapitulation), that undercut his ability to articulate well both the angular and rollicking character of stormy close to the Exposition. Opening of the Development section sounded loose, albeit at moment for tension to relax nevertheless; start of broad retransition to dramatic opening of the recapitulation was diaphanous to extent of it being possible to mistake for being Chausson. In spite of good stringendo accenting strongly implied in the score, Janowski almost made self-parody out of arching his way into accenting last stage of segue into the Recapitulation. Infusion of practically bargain basement accenting annoyed toward coda to the first movement, which then heaved and groaned its way to its conclusion.

Any unsuspecting need-for-dramamine-challenged audience members could not have fully welcomed Janowski’s swaying manner with opening of the Andante. After coy reply from oboe, Janowski waltzed his way (corrected on partial reprise later on) up broadly ascending bridge idea that so happens to be written in dotted rhythms. Oboe principal, starting well his long spinning out ideas designed to enhance the pastoral aura of it all, got caught up in a little of a beguine by end of the Exposition. Fortunately, the Recapitulation, featuring burnished toned duet between concertmaster and horn, proceeded more smoothly and eloquently.

Much of the Allegretto proceeded somewhat loosely, even in pastel mode, enough to drop hints of Palm Court here and there. Calibration of line with syncopating undercurrents at start of it was weak. Janowski then turned self-conscious with upbeats to the trio section, which denied it in flat-line manner much of any swagger. Transition back to A section through (in accenting) misplaced piccicati misfired, with horns under reprise of the opening losing all sense of pitch right underneath. Violins lost definition in trio section reprise pianissimo off-beats, by back-phrasing them too much - making disturbed peace out of ending cadence.

Introduction to the finale, with a large heave to open it, proceeded conventionally enough. Sequence of ascending pizzicato got worked in a scherzo-esque manner, but with awkward arching of ending of each sequence to comical effect. Principal horn then made loud yawn out of his call, that, then, handling of flute reprise of it then cloyed all life out of it, making me reflect on matters here at home (Houston). For all the cautious underlining that RSO violins put into it, they seemed enough in a hurry to have skipped almost a beat of rest right before. Janowski then gunned forward fortissimo reprise of the opening idea, but managed to lyrically shape what followed. He then at last managed to tighten matters up well through agitato portions of the Development section, but then went for incurable over-emphasis for transition into recapitulating horn-call motif in RSO violins, during which from them he made enormous self-parody out of what is often awkwardly achieved rhetoric anyway. With well marked accenting of upward tremolo arpeggi in the violins (with soggy support from the horns at a key moment or two), the recapitulation made for smoother sailing, at least until flabby accenting that announced onset of a cheaply, at times wildly sectionalized, heavily docked coda.

One might better observe a conductor perhaps less grounded in German romanticism, but with idea instead of how Brahms’s compositional processes developed, were cultivated out of knowledge of the music of Bach and looked forward too to the progressivism of the new Vienna school in some of its harmonic and melodic impetus. Such vision might spark considerably better artistry, results with this repertoire.

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