Tuesday, 17 April 2012

They’ll learn to love the Neue Komplexität yet


Konzerthaus, 13/04/2012

Wiener Philharmoniker, Antonio Pappano

Haydn: Symphony no. 22 in E flat major ‘Philosopher’
Jörg Widmann: Teufel Amor. Sinfonischer Hymnos nach Schiller (2009). World premiere
Brahms: Symphony no. 4 in E minor, op. 98


Ever noticed how the Wiener Philharmoniker can make a dog’s dinner of its core rep and yet plays tricky contemporary music astonishingly well? Lord knows it’s not as if they like the modern stuff (grapevine dismissals heard about recently include Boulez’s Notations I-IV and VII, Salonen’s piano concerto and Cerha’s percussion concerto). The Salonen I didn’t get to hear, but the other two were given fine performances with no outward sign of reluctance, indeed quite the opposite. And so it was the case again in this concert, which featured dedicated playing in the world premiere of Jörg Widmann’s Teufel Amor and some utterly pedestrian Haydn and Brahms.

Regarding Haydn and Brahms, there’s not much that can be said about such routine playing. Good stately pace and graceful motions in the first movement of the Philosopher, the rest rather characterless and overly driven. And given the hundreds of times they perform Brahms 4 one might expect the firsts, basses, and winds to be together at the beginning even if they were all half-asleep and Gilbert Kaplan were on the podium, but no. Elsewhere Antonio Pappano’s fluid tempi kept the stodge from intruding, but in spirit it was a plodding effort with the orchestra taking few cues from his gestures. Solos were decent but failed to inject any contrast, dynamics were anaesthetizingly limited in range, and there was no sense that any of it mattered outside of showing up and performing one’s Dienst.

But as much as I enjoy hearing a properly unHIP Haydn symphony I wasn’t really there for that or the Brahms, and if we must have a concert of two halves it was pleasing that the balance of commitment worked out in favour of Teufel Amor. My attempt to hear the piece blind was disturbed by Pappano’s podium synopsis (Deutsch kind of peinlich), briefly summarized as ‘devil is introduced and dances with love, love gets an extended solo spot, devil remains at the end’. (Whether they are antagonists or two sides of the same coin is left ambiguous.) The title’s ‘nach Schiller’ refers to a fragment which reads ‘Süßer Amor, verweile / Im melodischen Flug’ (‘Sweet Amor, remain in melodic flight’).

We open with the most flatulent instruments of the orchestra working through a sequence of low held notes – a trombone B flat, a tuba A, a contrabass clarinet D, repeated. This rather sluggish devilish presence proceeds to sound for some time but is oddly hypnotic. Things then pick up rapidly as Widmann sets a phantasmagoric sound world spinning in motion (very Varèse). Instrumentation here is handled with some skill, though in this and a lot of the new music I’m hearing at the moment it does seem that the bowed vibraphone is making a comeback before we got the chance to feel nostalgic for it. After this comes the main business: the central lyrical section, which I hesitate to label an evocation of love. Here tonal material gets introduced to the swirl of free atonality, though in no Bergian way; other elements we shouldn’t attach too much importance to include the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them references to Shostakovich 5 and the slow movement of Mahler 6. For a general description of the music I find myself reaching for the fancy of an unfinished Mahler 11 given a modernist completion, though there’s nothing ironic or self-conscious about it and the quality of the writing – very much Widmann’s own, despite the apparent conceit – sustains its own interest. Bringing tonality into the mix after establishing an unapologetically modernist backdrop may sound like PoMo schtick, but I struggled to pin it down as a simulacrum. The devil remaining at the end is a straightforward return to the low notes.

So there’s a gloss on the piece. It is possibly over-extended and could do with some tightening, but the score is good enough to require another hearing before venturing more of an opinion. For all those nice things I wrote about the Wiener Philharmoniker and new music they do rather make Cerha sound like Berg (which is wrong), but here credit is due for keeping the individuality of Widmann’s voice free of Mahlerian accents. Pappano appeared to know the score inside out and did an excellent job of shaping the performance, though I wondered if the diverse sections could possibly be made to hang together more convincingly. But more of a thought than a complaint.

Incidentally, Tony’s gasping and grunting found favour with the Viennese – I shouldn’t report it, but for some reason I always get sat next to eccentric old bags who make the most peculiar comments, in this case ‘very virile for such a round little man’. I suppose for those who take pleasure in seeing well-padded manliness there are few bigger draws than a Philharmoniker concert, but one wishes they would keep their enjoyment to themselves.

Returning to Teufel Amor, a free perusal score can be found here. The work is a joint commission between the Konzerthaus and the following institutions, where it will be performed throughout the coming year: the Kölner Philharmonie, the Concertgebouw Amsterdam and the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées (Dominique Meyer was in attendance at this performance). The Wiener Philharmoniker also take it on tour to Athens at the end of the month.

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