This was an unusually resonant programme, showcasing the Viennese style over two centuries, from a master of the original 'Viennese style', to a (comparatively) seldom-heard master of the so-called 'Second Viennese School', via Brahms — not of a school, but something of a schoolmaster, a mentor, to his Viennese successors.
Some years ago, the SCO performed Webern's Symphony op. 21 in the Queen's Hall, a performance marred by a fidgeting, coughing, whispering audience. As the garrulous old fellow to my immediate right continued a frisky narration in his partner's ear, undaunted by the performance having begun, I feared the worst for this occasion too. Fortunately, a compelling hush quickly established itself. I was struck, though, as the audience applauded the conclusion, by paroxysmic giggles issuing from a woman to my left — prompted, so one would assume, by some remark about the music. What is it about Webern that seems to make people so nervous?
Of course, the sheer concentrated formal intensity digested into such a tiny rhetorical footprint makes demands of the listener, politely couched though it is in exquisitely wrought sonic delicacy. Whilst the harmonic language is characteristically abrasive with all its sevenths and ninths, melodically Webern is squarely in the Viennese tradition, his contours and contrapuntal design clearly echoing with tradition; sometimes it is squareness of rhythm, a want of plasticity, that lets him down.
Previewing the season I marked down this performance as a treat in store, simply because live Webern is so hard to come by. It turned out to be more than a treat, most particularly in the second movement, where Robin Ticciati led the ensemble, with Lars Vogt at the piano, onto a plane of lyric intensity that marked this performance out as something very special indeed.
Following that, Mozart's twenty-first piano concerto afforded an opportunity to make comparisons with the recent RSNO outing with Imogen Cooper (see below). As with Don Giovanni a couple of months ago—and, for that matter, last week's Beethoven—the horns and trumpets were natural, period instruments. In the present work they blended especially well with the woodwind timbres dominated by oboes and bassoons (just one flute, and no clarinets), lending a plangent, pastoral character to the ensemble in contrast to the smooth warmth of the RSNO's styling. Vogt at the piano was perhaps more ascetic in his approach than Ms Cooper, though no less elegant. (Perhaps his fortissimos were excessively strident, but that would be a minor complaint indeed.) Again, in the slow movement, Ticciati, Vogt, and the orchestra held the audience rapt. One might put the small burst of applause at its conclusion down to ardent Elvira Madigan fans in the audience (or even, given the weather, AA fans), but it could have just been a spontaneous reaction to the performance.
My garrulous neighbour managed to curb his tongue literally a couple of seconds before the first notes of Brahms' fourth symphony sounded. Just in time to hear an approach to the opening that maybe reached for more Viennese lilt than necessary. In a symphony haunted by Beethoven and Bach, the challenge is to pilot a course between past and then-present; but beside the ghosts, there is the difficulty—as in the second piano concerto—of stitching four marvellous pieces of music together to make a single, coherent whole, faced with an unrelentingly weighty second movement, a third movement that doesn't seem to know it's a third movement, and a finale that flourishes with invention and then simply stops. Once more, toward the end of the first movement especially, Ticciati wrought a compelling reading of sustained intensity; as ever, his tempo-setting and his phrasing were immaculate. At the end, as though wrung out, he trudged from the stage, happily not too exhausted to return to accept the audience's acclaim.
Recorded (in Glasgow) for broadcast by BBC Radio 3, Thursday 16 December at 7pm
Photo: Lars Vogt by Anthony Parmelee
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