August 18, 2016
(++++) SEEKING THE AUTHENTIC
Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4. Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt conducted by Howard Griffiths. Klanglogo. $18.99.
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23; Violin Concerto No. 5. Francesco Corti, fortepiano; Thibault Noally, violin; Les Musiciens du Louvre conducted by Marc Minkowski. C Major DVD. $24.99.
Concerto: A Beethoven Journey—A Film by Phil Grabsky. Seventh Art DVD. $27.99.
The increased interest in historically informed performances of Classical-era and Romantic music – not just Baroque works – has led to some reevaluations regarding the way well-known pieces “should” sound. Some appropriate-to-their-time changes are fairly straightforward, if not necessarily easy to put into practice: violins seated left and right of the podium rather than clustered to the left; much-diminished use of vibrato, reserving it only for special effects; gut strings; natural horns; and so forth. But there are also matters of considerable subtlety, relating to how composers thought in particular time periods – how they assumed (without writing anything down) that their music would sound. Listeners know some of this already: ornamentation was a foundational element of the Baroque era but of course was not written out by composers, since some of the creativity of performers involved devising it in performance, and cadenzas in later music might or might not be written by composers (and if they were, might or might not be intended as the only suitable cadenzas to play). Matters get murkier in the Romantic era, which is why Howard Griffiths’ Brahms cycle with the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt is so interesting. Griffiths has gone back to the notes of conductor Fritz Steinbach (1855-1916), considered one of the preeminent Brahms interpreters in Brahms’ own time, and a man who played a large part in establishing Brahms’ symphonies as part of what we now think of as the classical canon. Griffiths has also worked with a book by Steinbach’s student Walter Blume (1883-1933) that incorporates many of the approaches and specific recommendations made by Steinbach with regard to the symphonies. A lot of this material is technical and, unsurprisingly, detail-oriented; Griffiths’ use of the approaches gleaned from interpreters of Brahms’ time may seem to modern listeners to make little difference. But some historically informed elements come through with considerable clarity, such as an easy flexibility of tempo that is by no means rubato but that allows careful accentuation of themes and countermelodies, especially ones that are heard across bar lines. The orchestra plays for Griffiths with care and beauty, and that makes his performance of Symphony No. 3, in particular, an outstanding one. In some performances, this symphony seems to blend and blur, as if its tightly knit sound and structure in fact add up to a single extended movement rather than four related ones. Not so here: Griffiths gives each movement its own character while at the same time highlighting the flow from one to the next and the eventual circularity of a work whose final bars recall its first ones. The repeat of the exposition of the first movement gives the symphony just the right scale (and unfortunately highlights the biggest disappointment in this cycle, the omission of the exposition repeat in Symphony No. 2). The mixture of warmth and clarity in the orchestra’s strings fits Griffiths’ interpretation of the Third particularly well. Symphony No. 4 is less successful, notably in its rather plodding first movement. This is the most Bach-infused of Brahms’ symphonies, and here a clear line and rhythmic sensitivity are absolutely necessary; the work also contains the only true Scherzo in the four symphonies – which here lacks the brightness that it makes it most effective. The overall interpretation of the Fourth is, surprisingly, rather pedestrian – all the other symphonies seem to engage Griffiths in a way that the last does not. It is by no means an inadequate performance, and the orchestra’s playing is again exemplary; but it is primarily the high quality of the Third that makes this Klanglogo release worthy of a top rating.
The search for authenticity takes a different direction when Marc Minkowski is involved. This is a conductor as intrigued by Offenbach as by Mozart, and as willing to look for the most appropriate, historically informed way to perform them both. For Mozart Week 2015 in Salzburg, Minkowski delivered an unusual approach to historic-performance practice that has now been released as a C Major DVD. In this reading of two wonderful A major scores, the piano concerto K488 and “Turkish” violin concerto K219, Minkowski’s soloists use instruments that Mozart himself once owned. This is a wonderful idea – if not quite the “oh wow” moment of revelatory performance perfection for which listeners might long. These instruments are, after all, more than 200 years old, and although both are in good repair and still sound quite fine, it is highly unlikely that they now sound just as they did in Mozart’s time. They do, however, shed considerable light on Mozart’s own performance capabilities and his attitude toward concertos. This is particularly true for the fortepiano, whose sound is very, very different from that of a modern concert grand and whose compass is much smaller. Seeing Francesco Corti’s hands spanning this instrument and working within its capabilities gives a very different impression from that of a typical performance of the Piano Concerto No. 23. Everything here is lighter, more transparent, cleaner as well as clearer, with Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre providing appropriate-size backup that shows the work to be more a partnership than a display piece. The earlier Violin Concerto No. 5, on a violin from the workshop of Pietro Antonio Dalla Costa, comes across quite well, too, although Thibault Noally’s fingering and drawing forth of considerable brilliance from the violin is not quite as special as is Corti’s handling of the fortepiano – the violin has, after all, changed far less over the centuries than have keyboard instruments. In addition to the two concertos, this well-recorded DVD brings the soloists together for the Violin Sonata No. 21, K304 – but unfortunately only for the second movement, Tempo di Menuetto. Just as a listener starts enjoying the way these instruments sound together, the movement ends – a frustration. The other “bonus” here is even odder: the finale of Schubert’s “Great” C major symphony, which Minkowski and the orchestra handle with beauty and enthusiasm but which really does not fit the rest of this program at all. Nevertheless, for a chance to see and hear two of Mozart’s own instruments in some of his music, this DVD is fascinating.
There is less fascination, although plenty of brilliant piano playing, in Phil Grabsky’s film featuring pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, Concerto: A Beethoven Journey. The journey of the title is both a geographical one, as Andsnes performs in various venues around the world, and a compositional one, in terms of Beethoven’s development through his five well-known concertos (the sixth, an arrangement of the Violin Concerto, is not included). Andsnes decided to spend four years seeking an authentic view of and feel for Beethoven by playing and recording the concertos with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and Grabsky’s film presents elements of the performances as well as commentary, by Andsnes and others, on the music and on Beethoven the composer. The film is well-made but scarcely revelatory: Andsnes plays a modern piano, the orchestra’s compact size works well for the music but sometimes leads to imbalances between soloist and ensemble, and there is nothing revelatory in the biographical information on Beethoven or the discussions of ways to interpret his music. The interpretations themselves are quite fine: Andsnes plays beautifully and thoughtfully, repeatedly bringing nuances of phrasing and emphasis to the fore in well-paced readings that shine a clear light on Beethoven’s development of the piano concertos even though they reveal no new depths in the works. It is worth remembering that, although Beethoven’s oeuvre is traditionally divided into early, middle and late periods, there are no late-period piano concertos: by the time he wrote No. 5, Beethoven could not even give the première, because of his increasing deafness. So there is no “journey” in these concertos comparable to that made by Beethoven in the symphonies and, to an even greater degree, the string quartets. Indeed, the musical journey here is a truncated one, no matter how far the physical journey takes Andsnes, the orchestra and the filmmakers. For fans of Andsnes – and he deserves to have many of them, based on his playing here – the DVD provides a chance to linger over his ideas and thoughts as well as his musicianship. But the whole hour-and-a-half film can offer only snippets of Beethoven’s concertos, and listeners who start to get involved in the music rather than the visuals and discussions will be frustrated to be unable to follow Andsnes through the entire Beethoven cycle. This Seventh Art release is a (+++) presentation that is visually attractive but, inevitably, musically lacking. It may entice viewers into a journey through Beethoven’s piano concertos, but it will not escort them along the way.