Saturday, 21 October 2017

Europe Day Concert stars: progress report

Well, two of the many twentysomethings who made this 9 May in St John's Smith Square the best yet, at any rate (pictured above at the event by Jamie Smith). Our conductor Jonathan Bloxham, now in his second year as assistant conductor to Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, set St Paul's Covent Garden alight with the London Firebird Orchestra - young professionals, see here - in one of the two best Beethoven Seventh Symphonies I've heard live (the other was Haitink's with the Concertgebouw, so not bad going). My thanks to John Naulls for stills from his film of the concert, which I've used wherever possible.

And violinist Benjamin Baker, soloist in what turned out to be the first serious Brexit piece, Matt Kaner's Stranded and recently covering himself in glory along with pianist Daniel Lebhardt in the Wigmore Hall, essayed his first Berg Violin Concerto with the enterprising Salomon Orchestra back in St John's Smith Square.

That's Ben above with fellow Kiwi and conductor Holly Mathieson in St John's Footstool after the concert. While I felt that all she could do with her amateur players, given limited rehearsal time, was to keep them together in the Berg - one of the casualties with such a group is dynamic nuance, though Ben's work was assured and beautifully focused throughout - I can't thank her enough for letting us hear Franz Schmidt's Fourth Symphony. I'm totally in love with the E flat major Second after Bychkov's Vienna Philharmonic Prom performance and the subsequent recording- which should be BBC Music Magazine disc of the year if I have anything to do with it (and I do, on the team of judges for the forthcoming awards) -

and so I was looking forward to this.

And it has to be said that what the Salomons do especially well is create the warm, rich kind of ensemble ideal for late-romantic works (boding well if Jonathan can get his way and conduct them in Strauss's An Alpine Symphony next year). The brass are rather splendid, the strings make a cohesive sound and Mathieson seemed in perfect command of the Fourth's stately progress (afterwards, she said tellingly that she realised she'd applied too much rubato in her previous performance of the work - it just goes). Not having heard it on CD for years, nor consulted the programme note, I found it a magnificent, slowly dying beast, briefly rallying in a fantastical scherzo (the least successful movement for the Salomons, for obvious reasons of nimble manouevres). It turns out to be a memorial for his daughter Emma, who had died in childbirth the previous year (1932), but it's also one of the very last flourishes of a vanishing age - only Strauss had more to offer, right up to 1949.

Schmidt was also seriously ill when he composed the symphony, but he lived on until 1939, which is unfortunate since it left him under the shadow of the Nazis in more ways than one. Born in Pressburg/Pozsony/Bratislava - now, of course, the capital of Slovakia, but then essentially Hungarian, as were Schmidt's mother and his half-Hungarian father - he was Mahler's favourite cellist in the Vienna Court Orchestra (though not the leader of the cello section, he played most of the solos). His output is small but everything I've heard is individual and quickly recognisable (not least in the Magyar/Roma gruppetti or turns, more profoundly in the startling harmonic progressions and the catering, in the orchestral works, to what I think of as the Vienna Philharmonic sound).

Unfortunately he got taken up by the Nazis, though seemingly with no desire for it, and left a cantata for them unfinished in favour of two chamber works for the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein. I can only think that this is why he's been seriously underrated as a symphonist. The Fourth, certainly, doesn't 'whore after the public taste', as Ingmar Bergman put it, and is even uningratiating, but it has total integrity, and I can't thank Mathieson (pictured below) and the Salomons enough for letting us hear it live.

Jonathan Bloxham must take up the baton for Schmidt, too - he's interested - and he has to join Ben in the Berg, with such supreme orchestral musicians as clarinettists Joe Shiner and Greg Hearle, whose sensitivity would be crucial in many of the dialogues with the violin. There was certainly another remarkable partnership on display the previous Tuesday, with Belarus(s)ian cellist Aleksei Kiseliov in Saint-Saëns' First Cello Concerto.

What an adorable and concise piece this is, with its startling central minuet led by muted strings (neoclassicism in 1873!) Kiseliov was so nimble and personable; the orchestra flowed with him to perfection, I have to say that Jonathan as cellist made an even better job of 'The Swan', his encore, at last year's Southrepps Festival, but then Kiseliov was probably knackered by then, and it always sounds better with the original piano accompaniment.

It was a big programme. Must say I was more impressed by the first oboe (James Hulme) than the perfectly good flute in Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, but the woodwind were uniformly fine as before. Soprano He Wu has ideal stage presence but a rather fast vibrato for the line of Leila's aria from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, and though her comedy was spot-on in Offenbach's Doll Song (pictured below) - rhythmically timed eyelash-flutters included - I'm not convinced she's a natural coloratura. One who is, incidentally, Maltese soprano Nicola Said, who moved everyone so much as Martinů's Ariane in the Europe Day Concert, will be singing her first Lucia with Fulham Opera next month.

Beethoven Seven, though, induced the delirium it should. For some, it was too fast in parts, but I admired it all - the second-movement Allegretto needs to remain of a piece with the rhythmic bounce of the other movements - and Jonathan conducted with attaccas for each movement throughout. Mirga, whose Beethoven Five at the Proms has the same freshness and focus, would have been delighted (hope she gets to see the film).

Detail could have been blurred at such speeds but never was; articulation, not all of it as expected, proved flawless throughout. Perhaps a mistake to add an encore downer, Sibelius's Valse Triste, but then Jonathan does like to follow in Paavo Järvi's footsteps. Not his fault if I've heard it too often in the past two months. Still, the exhilaration remained - huge congratulations to all.


John Gardiner said...

Absolutely agree with you, David, about the Schmidt 2nd Symphony, and the VPO/Bychkov reading of it. For me it was a revelation at first hearing (via Radio 3)at the 2015 Proms: so much so that, in my excitement during the finale, I managed to knock over a full glass of red wine. (It subsequently scrubbed out of the carpet, happily.) The Sony recording from the same time I think might have benefited from just a touch more clarity in the recorded sound - but yes, it's very fine, isn't it? Thank heavens the major record companies haven't entirely given up on what must seem 'unmarketable' repertoire.

Susan said...

Quite a compendium of delights here! I seem to recall somewhere in my musical travels running across Schmidt, but I didn't, for whatever reason, follow through. Now I will try to do so, particularly as the Symphony No. 2 you note is available on Spotify. (Hunting out CDs is harder and harder, so Spotify will have to do for now, though another trip to Academy Records, perhaps when I'm next in NYC is, to borrow your expression, "on the cards.") On Schmidt being overlooked, both because the Nazis appropriated his work (so far as I can tell without his consent, let alone complicity), together with scorn for his continuation in the tonal tradition in the face of Schoenberg marks yet another example of the needless effort required to "resuscitate" the work of a composer who probably should never have been disregarded in the first place.

Curt Barnes and I were talking about this yesterday (he attended the Pappano/Argerich with me), and how he's learned, from our mutual friend Bert, that something need not break "new" ground in order to be good--or great. I am far less worried about the issue of breaking new ground to begin with. Though I do try to get beyond simply "liking what I like," as one's horizons will never expand that way, I do tend to take each work on its own, rather than judging it against the "tradition" of which it's "supposed" to be a part. Listening to Respighi last night with this in mind was instructive. I was not surprised to read he studied orchestration with Rimsky-Korsakov, given the attractive inventiveness in his own orchestration, but there were times where I thought he relied overmuch on orchestration to mask an underlying structure that seemed a bit weak. But this is only a lay impression, and the pieces were so beautifully performed that there was nothing not to love. (As to the man, of course, unlike Schmidt, Respighi was, shall we say, not so politically sound.)

David said...

It knocked me for six at the Proms, right from the bubbling-brook opening - especially after a rather ordinary Brahms 3 in the first half. I thought the sound was amazing. Yes, really quite a bolt from the blue from Sony. Remember that when EMI was infatuated with Franz Welser-Most they indulged him in recording the Fourth. That's not a bad disc either.

John Gardiner said...

Agreed, David. (One of my first encounters with Schmidt, that LPO/FW-M 4th.) And the Book of the Seven Seals, too!

David said...

Yes - and BotSS marked the last time I remember a big choral rarity being done at the Proms. Living in hope that they might eventually make Neeme Järvi happy and let him conduct Jonas' Mission by Rudolf Tobias. NJ's Gothenburg performance of the intermezzo from Schmidt's Notre Dame is stupendous (still not heard the complete opera).

David said...

Sue - apologies, your comment was lurking in the system and I hadn't been notified of it. Hope the Spotify performance is Bychkov's, though there are two from our friend Neeme which can't be bad.

This whole question of not having to innovate to be worthy of attention is an interesting one and I remember reading quite a bit about it in a book by the musically-oriented philosopher Bloch (not to be confused with the composer). He was particularly strong on Mozart building on a tradition, Beethoven making the real steps, yet why should we place one above the other just because of the more obvious innovation (I prefer Mozart, but that's a personal thing, and not always so)? And now that we can see the woods of genius as opposed to the trees of restricted innovation from the twelve-tone boys attitudes have changed. All that one should ask is that a composer creates his or her own world with what we deem to be authenticity. Schmidt is certainly one such, Rachmaninov another (the more I listen to the piano works, the more I'm convinced that he was THE great original in that sphere after Chopin and Brahms). And I still find that phrase in Prokofiev's diaries useful: 'good for the history of music, but not for music'.

David Damant said...

I note that Schmidt died in 1939. In the decade of the 1930s Europe was covered with authoritarian regimes ( Mussolini, Antonesco, Horthy, Pilsudski and others) as well as Hitler. People in all those countries got on with their lives and often interfaced with the regimes, and should not be seriously blamed, if blamed at all in many cases. Hitler's later horrors should not be read backwards into the thirties. A good indicator of how Germany was seen in that decade is the fact that in 1938 an initiative by President Roosevelt to get the countries of Europe and North and South America to take on more of the Jewish people expelled from Germany failed ( except for the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica ). Even the USA refused ( Congress not agreeing with the President). They might have taken a different view if they knew what was going to happen later. But seeing the future is not easy.

David said...

Early 1930s, agreed (though those directly affected knew exactly what to expect in 1933). Of that annus horribilis Stefan Zweig wrote in The World of Yesterday: 'One cannot easily dispose of 30 or 40 years of deep faith in the world inside of a few brief weeks. In the clutch of our conception of justice we believed that there was a German, a European, a world conscience, and were convinced that there existed a measure of barbarousness that would make its quietus, once and for all, because of mankind. Since I am trying here to stick to the truth as much as possible, I have to admit that none of us in Germany and Austria in 1933 and even in 1934 thought that even a hundredth, a thousandth part of what was to break upon us in a few weeks could be possible'.

Zweig had his name removed as librettist of Richard Strauss's opera Die schweigsame Frau. In 1935 Strauss's letter berating his 'Jewish obstinacy' in worrying about the Nazis' interference in their work, and asking whether he really thought Strauss himself had ever given any thought as to his being an 'Aryan' composer ('perhaps, qui le sait?') , led to RS being stripped of the musical post he'd only accepted as paying lip service to a hated regime he thought would pass.

d said...

I would still argue that especially with so many authoritarian regimes in Europe at that time it is wrong to blame individuals for cooperating to some extent. One very powerful factor in Germany was economic recovery....most people had jobs and safe jobs, which gave an atmosphere generally so much improved as compared with the pre-Hitler period. In that sense the regime in Germany was popular. As for the question of the Jewish people, Germany was not unique in taking a hostile view - one could mention Poland which was massively anti-Jewish. And the German policy in the 1930s was expulsion, not extermination. Certainly some saw the future ( Thomas Mann even before Hitler came to power) but unpleasant regimes were fairly usual, and people had to live with them and accept the parameters involved.

There is another line of thought. If we blame artistic people, what about those who owned the factories that produced the goods for war? They were much more directly involved in Hitler's plans than artists. Would we expect a general strike, since if we blame some we have to blame very many? The fault of the German people was more general - they looked the other way, leaving politics to others, and let evil men take over power in the state. Also in the two free elections of 1932 the Nazis and the Communists - the two parties that wanted to do away with democracy - won together 50% of the votes. That was the fundamental flaw.

David said...

Let's think of it in today's context. If you had a safe job and yet saw people fleeing and persecuted in the hundreds, even thousands, as was the case from 1933 onwards in Germany, what would you do? We have hindsight; we know it's not acceptable. Even in America the fight-back is, thankfully, quite strong, even if hamstrung.

That, and Hitler as the ultimate Horror Clown, which was clear to anyone of any intelligence watching his speeches in the 1930s, suggest that the years of suffering had hypnotised too many Germans into compliance. Anyway, the tactics are back, that's clear, and not enough people seem to have learned.

Now, it would be nice to see some support for our young musicians. Difficult, I guess, if you don't know them. But if you do, let's see some ra-ra-ra-ing.

David Damant said...

Just two more comments on this side line. Hitler's speeches were not only enormously effective at the time ( and they were very carefully choreographed, his arm movements etc..) but they were in a style usual in Germany then and indeed later. Even in the 1970s Mrs Thatcher said that she found it difficult to accept the way that the German politicians shouted into the microphone. And in answer to the question " what would you do?" I can answer as before.....if some action should have been taken, most of the German nation should have acted, and it is unfair to specify individuals.

I try and indeed succeed in getting young musicians to perform at my club, when maturity is not required but skill and enthusiasm is. For example in several performances of"Not In Front Of The Waiter". On this basis I am currently planning a 40th birthday party performance....which. for the avoidance of doubt as the lawyers would say, is not mine.

David said...

Freaky-weird is always the same, notwithstanding your comments. I can cite you intelligent Germans in the early 1930s finding his style utterly ludicrous. Demagoguery is always horrifying to so many, but sadly not enough: look at America, Hungary, Poland, Austria, the Philippines now. I know you're trying to find detachment and balance, but you do end up sounding like an apologist for the original Horror Clown sometimes.

These guys have always shown maturity whenever I've seen them as well as skill and enthusiasm - something I find so astonishing about their generation. Same's true of genius guitarist Sean Shibe - he is already the real deal. Fabulous operatic/Lieder talent pouring out of the music colleges too.