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, January 21, 2011

DR Kultur: DSO Berlin Live - Auspicious debut by Jonathan Nott with 20th century program. Christian Tetzlaff. Philharmonie, 16.01.11.

This marked Jonathan Nott’s debut with DSO Berlin – very likely the most auspicious guest conducting debut with them thus far this season. He opened with a Georg Friedrich Haas transcription of Scriabin’s Ninth Piano Sonata, Opus 68 (‘Black Mass’) – here labeled Sonata in one movement. Haas has tapped knowingly and deep into the rich colors of Scriabin’s piano writing, starting off with descending chromatic lines in winds, imitating brass - if not quite giving the dynamism of Scriabin’s original writing much of any boost. Elaborate figuration gets underpinned by ominous triplets on timpani – recurring motif one stronger hint of menace, mostly just intimated here, afoot – showing up on wood-blocks later on – surrounded by much flutter and arabesque all about.

Much rapid, fleeting arabesque in the strings, midway through this got answered by fluttering bird-call in flutes, other high winds over lightly insistent dotted rhythms in trumpet, winds and brass. Firm line of cortege would recur, framing this music to indicate or strongly intimate good structural firmness underneath. Nott, with DSO Berlin, relished the rich colors, drawing an always warm, supple response out of all sections of DSO Berlin – with ear keen to how this piece is structured, amidst much ornate finery. Nott’s strengths as a musician became very evident here – though perhaps working with tamer assessment of Scriabin’s late-period style than with how this music was originally composed. Eschewed entirely was undue heavy gilding of lines running therein – as might throw out of focus some of the rest. Perhaps a few knowing risks could have been employed – as could effectively be from prudent leadership Nott frequently provides.

Favorite and also recently touring soloist with DSO Berlin for the occasion was Christian Tetzlaff for the First Violin Concerto by Dimitri Shostakovich. This was playing slightly outside tradition of Oistrakh, Kremer, Repin, but of a very deeply probing quality to strongly compel, in the grand scheme of things, a broader, more universal perspective on what this music expresses – not just of Shostakovich’s life, tormented persona behind Iron Curtain alone. Tetzlaff, with lean tone, maintained keen ear, through spinning forth in opening ‘Nocturne’ of the DSCH motif, for structural character of developing it with all the rest - toward goal of revealing all probingly under contrasting perspectives of light and shade. No (insipidly) obviating underlining was necessary, thus none occurred. He was very engagingly partnered here by Nott, helping give solidity, foundation to orchestral argument interweaving with his thus far.

The starkness of the character of Shostakovich’s writing found Nott perhaps slightly inhibited in engaging such during later movements, but for ‘Nocturne’, he and Tetzlaff together were ideal. Reach into double basses starting the concerto, then into lower winds emerged deep and rich. By contrast, eerie calm thoroughly framed ascent into high reaches in the solo part, recalling similar writing in opening Largo of the Sixth Symphony. Through drawing precisely fine sonorities out of this music emerged as well a contained yet deeply internally passionate response to this music from Tetzlaff. Stoical framing of coda on starkly, yet deeply sonorously articulated arpeggio of deep rumination over closing lines from Tetzlaff to follow was also most apt.

‘Scherzo’ began acerbically dry, with Tetzlaff even hinting at clipping a few of his lines, but without undercutting their rhythmic profile. Response from concertato winds emerged slightly tentative in ensemble – with Nott then stoically glib at marking vigorous dance ritornello to follow. Tetzlaff made both gutsy and light his engagement of elaborate figuration to come – with element of fanfare characterizing his lines to the forefront. The modernism of the writing through fugato to follow, starting just past midway through, between both Tetzlaff and Nott stood out in stark relief.

Getting past one or two slips in intonation from DSO brass, Nott drew rich color out of winds and quickly improving brass for first variation to follow for the Passacaglia. Tetzlaff then entered, providing his lines measured noble restraint over then descending bassoon obbligato that could have been encouraged toward achieving firmer shape for how to start it. Tetzlaff restored focus to proceedings in full with simple restatement on forthright octaves of the Passacaglia theme. Descending line into precisely marked strong chordal pizzicato led to a quiet, measured, deeply foreboding close – into a thoroughly psychologically and musically worked out cadenza Tetzlaff accomplished. In firmly maintaining classical profile to characterizing this music, Tetzlaff made implacable motion forward as tempo picks up toward electrically charged anticipation of the finale.

Winds, not mal-propos opened the finale somewhat joyless, even matter-of-fact, but gained stronger character with ringing carillon motif, buttressing and driving Tetzlaff harder forward, though elsewhere feeling evident of Tetzlaff driving things ahead slightly high and dry over mere accompaniment beneath. Interlude to follow from Nott was musically astute, as was incisively marking clarinet and horn antiphony of Passcaglia motif over xylophone, abetting Tetzlaff winding tight the explosive vitality of what he had in front of him, toward dry, determined pacing of the coda. The quality of leaving something in reserve during closing page of Shostakovich First may indeed have something to say for it. Shostakovich did not intend indication of any triumph – definitely nothing easy or headily achieved – to resound forth. Thorough prudence on part of both Tetzlaff and Nott, though such one might have found slightly cerebral, was perhaps more adept than what is the norm. Tetzlaff, to affirmative response from Philharmonie audience, provided nobly profiled Bach D Minor Sarabande – supple, deeply introspective his limning of straight line in sixteenths to help close this.

William Walton’s First Symphony, in B-Flat Minor, written in the early 1930’s, with perhaps storm clouds about foreboding great conflict ahead, made for an ideally defining second half for this concert. Nott specifically made encompassing profile of this elaborately scored forthright composition – leaving nothing at its surface, as jerky motion from Simon Rattle (EMI) can occasionally leave impression of all substance here being just as it appears right there, in even an insipidly or quasi-academically Hindemithian manner. Nott, without cheating the simplicity of either the shape or melodic content of this music, clearly avoided this problem by being keenly attentive to, underneath the lines so to speak, impetus through making subtle overtones heard, that drives much of this music forward. Such indicates even Hindemith often being given short shrift. From Nott, malcontent to stick to shallower waters in engaging the Walton – one got here intimation of Walton’s roots in having studied with Ferruccio Busoni –what implications might linger with Walton in picking up, making a few his own the last century’s innovations in extending, developing complex harmonic practices.

On the surface, Walton’s First Symphony is perhaps as reactionary as the British late-Romantic or Edwardian symphonic tradition comes. Even Sir Edward Elgar in works such as the Violin Concerto and Second Symphony deserves more probing scrutiny than common - for his certainly not being completely disengaged from the overt early century’s radicalism pervading the continent just a thirty kilometer swim away. There is more here than sometimes most immediately reaches the ear. Nott has found it the best I have yet heard from anybody – potentially challenging the supremacy of the composer’s EMI recording with Philharmonia.

Generation of vitality on steady ostinato to course through first movement got naturally achieved - without need for overt projection to prod it along. All remained equally varyingly tensile, supple in essaying long allargando line in unison strings, leaning into series of diminished dominant chords, establishing starkly realized minor dominant (F Minor) – accompanied by agitating repeat note tremoli in the lower strings.., Such eventually hammering tremolo, organically achieved here, becomes oppressive, leading into climax of suspended long held B (C-Flat) – half-step above B-Flat, tritone above F.

Sense apparent of reaching point harmonically beyond which this music can not endure further strain without disintegrating – or turning into a different type of composition altogether, Nott’s way of seeing well ahead of particulars facing him made abundantly clear. Transition into subtly colored, shaped duo between solo bassoon and viola was supple, while not garnishing or making anything unduly bland of anything yet. Surge through the first movement resumed, with equally sense of struggle firmly far beneath, confidently similarly as before into fully achieved long-breathed under quasi-vocalise descant based on long breathed oboe descant consequent very near this piece’s opening. Antiphony between differing lower brass into trilled cadences, forming briefly repetitive canon got firmly, definitively shaped. Healthy swagger into final cadence followed there being some sense of thinness, strain to upper reaches above great weight of sonority underneath from DSO violins.

Nott provided scherzo (Presto con malizia), in its light, often even jaunty essaying of in retrospect what anxiety, tensions dominating the first movement, good flowing electrical current through it, all as nature driven, with rattling repeat note figuration answered by firmly robust interjections in strong octaves – some of this as though man-made driven as well Jaunty recurrent closing idea, followed midway through by detached quasi-pointillistic episode did not overdo what conviviality, resiliency of spirit arises in fleetingly achieving B-Flat Major – letting with naturally boosted lift it just speak for itself. Rapidly ascending brief runs off repeat-note rattling about freely led into acrid dissonances cresting sequencing lines. Interval contrasts fully spelled out, all went sailing forth into jaunty conclusion off incendiary spinning forth orchestra wide trill into the fray.

Nortt avoided oppressive cliché of lengthy suspensions by guiding all to have preceded melancholy, more anxiety infused Andante with precisely guided understatement - and controlled balances also earlier toward avoiding excessive detachment.. Supple profile was made here of frequently descending febrile toned winds. Nott clearly pointed accompaniment to clarinet on first fluttering bassoon, then gentle undulation on other clarinet(s) to alternating solo oboe and clarinet – all prudent means of avoiding overall line sagging or becoming heavy laden. Strings passionately limned their descant – to throbbing chords underneath - to earlier phase of the above. Sonorities, increasingly bolstered by firm brass developed power with mostly unforced ease. All sonorities, dissonances within were handled fastidiously without undercutting their warmth and luminosity. Strong appoggiatura above throb on single pitch in the strings buttressed passionate outcry above, all towards making way to a distraught close

Bright flush fully informed Maestoso start to the finale – logically welcome relief to heavier air inhaled most of the way up to this point. New vitality brightly thrust itself toward framing facile, incisively playful fugato - welcome in place of urbane propelled variety – the enlightened classicism of Nott’s approach always strong on this music’s behalf. Double reeds warmly limned retreating lines off fugato - allowing fanfare pointed reprise thereof swaggering new lease on life. Playful jagged inversion of the counterpoint led into rolling forth straight sixteenths variation of same fugato toward making reminder of similar pattern to Scherzo earlier – all struggle encountered thus far now almost overcome.

Nott might have been less specific at fully characterizing grandiose coda than does the composer – or perhaps less specifically (Rule) Britannia at it. Even here a palpable sense of excitement, also psychologically in being prudently matter-of-fact was something to build towards thrust forth chords framing eventual conclusion - moreover sense of conflict having ensued likely not yet having been all put out to sea for good. Between Ashkenazy (mildly perfunctory on the finale), the composer, very wisely Haitink, even almost two-dimensional interpretatively Rattle, I have yet to come across a misrepresentative account of Walton’s First Symphony. Even perhaps from Haitink (Philharmonia – EMI again), there is achieved full assessment intellectually, aesthetically (even of arguably progressive element therein) of what this music indeed has to say. This Jonathan Nott accomplished in full.

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