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.

Friday, July 16, 2010

DR Kultur: RSO Berlin, Marek Janowski. Emanuel Ax almost single-handedly saves all-Brahms engagement. Philharmonie. 04.06.10.

Marek Janowski's past season with RSO Berlin has been truly something conservative - a complete cycle of the Beethoven nine, a series of mostly 19th, early 20th century music by French composers and two, likely several all-Brahms programs. What competition there is around, one expects more effort, care for Brahms than encountered here.

Janowski felt on relatively safe ground with Tragic Overture. Without taking anything to (quasi-)'period' extent, Janowski started things off conscientious about clear separations between its opening jagged textures and stark dotted rhythms, but too jerky, detached of the latter. Spinning out of first theme became too loose - indefinite for winds attempting to carry line forward. Janowski did best here with supple, ardent handling of overture's second theme, both times it appeared (as to open later the reverse recapitulation). Janowski caught well the apprehensive calm of preceding bridge section – aptly dark but mildly damp brass on abbreviated chorale this little section frames.

Janowski took cortege starting the slower (extended retransition) Development too light, glib through its woodwind led lines; what solemnity remained came across ironic, half-baked. Perhaps worse was heavily cliched back-phrase from violins playing at nearly double pianissimo, where only marked pianissimo, so that pianissimo marked brass became incapable of underpinning much of anything at all, then resulting in their brief, sonorous transition into warmly opening reverse recapitulation getting devalued or undercut. Spongy attack on first theme group octave descent jumping dotted rhythms segued into increasing stodginess the rest of the way, from which then the music never again recovered. Clumsily played luft-pausen occurring soon before the end helped characterize the rest. Granted, bigger names have made a mess of Tragic Overture, obscuring its form - sense of progressive turn too this music takes lost, regarding its abundant stark figuration and rhythms upon which it is built.

One assumed Janowski perhaps could have taken his ease toward letting much of the Opus 16 A Major Serenade play itself. Nevertheless, the two orchestral serenades have their subtle traps. Partly for not watching it, partly for being distracted by less important matters, Janowski fell often unsubtly right in. I recall the New York Philharmonic, perhaps very least desirable of any leading big name orchestra to play this music, Riccardo Muti a few years ago lovingly led through the longer D Major Serenade, as though no measure therein can be taken for granted - regardless how easily it reads to the eye. The whole thing just glowed under balm of sun-drenched Mediterranean color, infusing the amore with which Muti compelled the Philharmonic to respond.

Good lift was provided winds for downward lilting series of triplets to lyrically begin the opening Allegro moderato. Due to insufficient attention overall, repeat of first theme turned flaccid, losing just about all shape. Jerky pointing of alternating voicing and offbeat chords through the Development quickly turned wonky, right preceding brief violas’ maudlin attempt to stabilize the line. With same slovenliness, soggy accents helped drag down the coda to an adequate, but unpromising first movement. Following scherzo went worse - Vivace taken a stodgy Moderato, tense on its accenting, thus draining it of much animation. Trio led by C clarinets and bassoons comfortably fared better, but reprise of scherzo, with mildly more obvious strict adherence to tempo fazed Janowski equally as much. Hemiola (partitioning off in two beats in place of marked three) stretto jumping octaves comically slipped from being coordination with all the rest.

Equally an Allegretto to the Scherzo, the following Adagio non troppo also proved discouraging. Apart from workmanlike handled scherzo, it might have seemed more normally paced. In lilting 12/8, quarter notes seemed slightly too short and eighths slightly lengthened - out of such seemed fear of being unable to keep line secure through all this otherwise. Section of obviously gentle repose in flatted lower major key proved reliable anchor for restoring ease to musical matters here; return of the Adagio at least gave illusion of proceeding in more restful mode than how it first appeared.

How the intermezzo 'quasi minuetto' – almost prefiguring several late Brahms piano pieces - could have gone more flat-line, drab, missing shift of color to bright major submediant (F Sharp Major) for being already in wistfully cheerful major key, is an enigma. Reprise of F-sharp major parenthesis even entered almost a full half beat early - after practically etude dull regrouping style reading of the intermezzo’s trio section.

Rondo-finale opened regrouped, lightly clipped - as to hint at street accent for its caccia style frolic. Brief turn to minore for winds became soggy, with jerkily half-confused string section interjections to mark off the woodwinds’ simple, candidly retiring lines. Second theme proceeded texturally light, but rhythmically not - of which Janowski made more flexible shape upon its reprise. Attempt to make ardent lean on cello descending line played non rubato risibly proved off-tether. Forced esprit was made of much of what remained, with heavily marked trudging of open intervals in the lower strings and wheezing RSO woodwinds, all to goal of little more than dull thud to conclude it all.

Principal French horn of RSO Berlin waited to recover until later than his opening solo lines to recover from case of soggy timbre; Emanuel Ax began his part with clear sense of expectation if then less than entirely optimum accenting of his extended lines to begin the Second Piano Concerto. Janowski started orchestral exposition forthright, but with accenting still more out of place and sense of routine to spelling out of its argument. Somehow from this Emanuel Ax mysteriously very fluently played his solo exposition opening flourish, entirely free of grand-standing – still sounding detached from what had preceded him. Ax, continuing phase of heroic stance seemed to almost entirely guide the course of events in this performance as playing, judiciously so, essentially an obbligato part – albeit not quite Clifford Curzon at this; who is? Searching quality of fantasy persisted with Ax, looking past phlegmatic orchestral impetus – with stiff accenting on violas too insistent underneath more interesting idea on horns to push anticipation of next episode. Accent pointing between RSO Berlin woodwinds and Ax became momentarily too incisive.

Phlegmatic transition from Janowski into more agitated closing section to the Exposition could have sunk a much lesser soloist, not to mention the flat-line stiffly coordinated support that persisted, denying soloist any kind of firm springboard off which to play such difficult figuration. Ax blithely sailed through it, conscientious of orchestral part, but again as though not encumbered at all. Better perhaps this setting than up against a self-styled deconstructionist take on the orchestral part as Horacio Gutierrez (who repeated considerably better the same concerto with Litton in Dallas weeks later) encountered in Houston long ago under Eschenbach. Ax just almost alone guaranteed sufficient lightness for B Minor scherzo like section of the Development, then limning fine re-entry of principal idea in the horns with great ease. Light orchestral filigree early on in the recapitulation failed to remain together with Ax; dull RSO Berlin winds then entirely undercut Ax’s negotiation of difficult octave jumping trills at end of section, all preceding sturm und drang approaching these having been denied all line. One should not think ‘support’ to describe orchestra’s role in type of concerto Brahms wrote four times. Janowski’s leadership was even insufficient at that.

Clunky accenting from Janowski confusingly undercut light jumping octave pointing of line toward making sufficient peroration to first movement almost sustained alone by Ax, oxymoronic as it sounds. Ax, who it seems could never get lost in dull thicket he had run across here, I mention as funny quip here, was found to entirely miss a big quiet, unencumbered celesta tremolo entrance in finale to Mahler Symphony No. 6 with Eschenbach (to follow Prokofiev First Concerto) here approximately twenty years ago. Sitting in Jones Hall, I was unaware of what exactly had happened - the entire incidence almost completely inexplicable for remainder of performance to ensue.

Janowski for opening idea for the D Minor intermezzo-scherzo waited until past trio section of this to find any shape therein. Mysterious, highly taxing interlude for rapidly shifting octaves, other intervals in Ax’s part again coasted by entirely fluent - so unsupported to have come off almost completely flat-line orchestral preparation thereof. String section’s hatchet-y accenting of opening of the Trio section made it sound something down home (near-) Deep South. Ax fluently contrasted tone of wistful inquiry with well couched open passionate outburst where called upon, as though again oblivious of so much in the way. As much as the orchestral part should intrude, buttress the soloist, ability to find such input more than half the time was difficult.

Principal cello of RSO Berlin, finding more thorough poise for later reprise, followed Janowski closely in allowing sag to his lines and then intonation thereof. Opening lines to the Andante then ended with waltz-y back-phrase before bassoons and strings, followed by oboe, began to better enhance the pastoral mood. All then dragged to such an extent, it was all Ax could do to keep line alive - to change marked ritardando into a subito poco piu mosso. He continued rhapsodically, wistfully, through middle section in which Janowski hardly found any definition at all. Quiet re-transition into brief recapitulation and then poetically achieved slow ascending chords from Ax closed parenthesis, framed an ending to, against meager effort toward making Brahms’s orchestral impetus to the easier Andante happen.

All was adequately light and piquant for the finale, but with queasy hint of Biedermeier to it all orchestrally for not more forthrightly taking it on. Ax continued with fine deft aplomb, wit, fervor, and ephemeral passionate outburst or two pianistically – with savor for this music’s incidental zingarese schmaltz - lust, shall we say as well. Ax even at one point very remarkably replaced Gypsy orchestrally, i.e. crude accenting, with ‘gypsy’, as though halfway deaf to what the orchestra had just played, but ninety-nine point five percent sure just intent, lightly so, to set things right. Right afterwards Ax with great ease tripped through opening bars to the Coda – tepid, flaccid underpinning from RSO Berlin no curb or restraint on him whatsoever.

One could only remark at end of the day on the valiant, practically heroic effort on part of Emanuel Ax – what valuable at all had emerged from this go at Johannes Brahms. Given such circumstances, but most of all his highly developed intimate knowledge of this piece, I do not recall better from Ax, though certainly good before, than this. It was as though he had walked into the Philharmonie with in his mind’s ear what much better orchestral playing to which he played his difficult obbligato part a previous time. His disc, to earnestly seek after, with Haitink in Boston (Sony) could remain some reference.

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