March 8 and 9, 2013
Sebastian Wittiber - Flute
Fazıl Say - Piano
Paavo Järvi - Conductor
What do Bach's Ouverture Nr. 2 in B-Minor BWV 1067, Mozart's Piano Concerto Nr. 12 in A-Major KV 414 and Franz Schmidt's Symphony Nr. 2 in E-flat Major have in common?
Not a lot, to be frank. And it would be disingenuous to try to pretend otherwise.
Hessischer Rundfunk moderator Adelheid Coy, in her pre-concert talk, attempted to plot a curve connecting all three works.
The slow movement of the Mozart concerto is, for example, an hommage to one of Bach's sons, Johann Christian Bach, taking as its theme a few bars from one of the "London Bach's" opera overtures.
And Schmidt (1874-1939), an Austrian late Romantic who is nowadays barely known outside his home city of Vienna where he played the cello in the Vienna Philharmonic, "has a lot do with the Bach," Coy assured us, but failed to enlighten any further.
So to be honest, it felt like a bit of a cheat to present three such disparate works in the third concert in this season's highly popular Barock+ series in the Hessischer Rundfunk's own broadcasting studio, the Sendesaal.
The real motivations behind the choice of works were likely more prosaic: Paavo Järvi is leaving as chief conductor at the end of the current season and had yet to conduct a single concert in the Barock+ series.
Furthermore, he has never previously worked with the charismatic (but not uncontroversial) Turkish pianist Fazıl Say, this season's artist in residence.
So it was, so to speak, an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.
Järvi himself admits that he's no baroque specialist and it was in fact the first time he's ever conducted Bach in Frankfurt.
But he couldn't have found a better partner than Sebastian Wittiber, one of the orchestra's two solo flautists, for a performance of Bach's B-Minor Suite.
Wittiber is an extremely versatile musician, equally at home in Mozart's flute concerti or virtuoso contemporary repertoire such as Matthias Pintscher's flute concerto Transir to classic 20th century pieces such as the Ibert concerto or the Poulenc sonata.
For BWV 1067, Wittiber opted for his own modern concert flute, rather than a wooden Böhm equivalent or even a copy of a baroque transverse flute.
But he gave a nod to historically informed performance with his scaled-back vibrato and slick, unfussy ornamentation.
Nevertheless, this was an unapologetically modern-day Bach that used double-tonguing for the fast passage work and relished the ripe lower register of the modern instrument (which has about as much to do with the flutes of Bach's day as a Steinway has to do with a clavichord).
Wittiber's range of dynamic shading -- from the most delicate and barely audible pianissimo to a beautifully rounded forte -- is remarkable, his articulation and phrasing always clear and expertly judged.
Tempi were fleet, particularly in the first of the two Bourrées and the final Badinerie, possibly one of the best known pieces ever for flute, was taken at a break-neck (or should I say "break-tongue") speed.
It is becoming increasingly popular for Mozart's piano concerti to be performed on fortepiano.
But Fazıl Say is no period-instrument man and he unabashedly chose a Steinway for his two performances of Mozart's Piano Concerto Nr. 12 in A-Major.
Say's residency with the hr-Sinfonieorchester this season has taken us from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Ravel and Gershwin to his own compositions and most of the concerts have been sold out.
His detractors rage and fume at what they see as Say's self-serving willfulness and idiosyncracy of interpretation and two of them tried to make their boos heard amidst the frenetic applause that followed Friday's performance.
The virility of Say's attack is certainly not to everyone's taste and his left hand in particular can sound aggressive and intrusive.
But in KV 414 -- composed in 1782 not long after Mozart arrived in Vienna and full of fresh air and sunlight -- we caught glimpses of a refinement and delicacy in his playing, too.
There is nothing remotely baroque about Franz Schmidt's gigantic Symphony Nr. 2 in E-flat, which came after the interval. Scored for massive forces, including quadruple woodwinds, four percussion players, eight horns and four trumpets, this was late Romanticism à Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Max Reger and Anton Bruckner.
Neeme Järvi's recordings of Schmidt's four symphonies are already regarded as a reference by many.
And his son Paavo -- currently recording successive Bruckner symphonies with the hr-Sinfonieorchester -- clearly feels at home in this repertoire, too. (Paavo is in fact planning a Schmidt cycle of his own when he returns to Frankfurt as Conductor Laureate next season in performances which will similarly be captured on CD.)
His clear analytical style and firm sense of architectural proportion are ideal for guiding the listener through such an unfamiliar work.
Written in three movements and lasting 50 minutes, the symphony, for all its bombast, is tightly structured.
Perhaps the most accessible on first listening is the second movement, a set of 11 variations on a chorale-like theme introduced by the woodwinds.
From a technical point of view, Schmidt's writing is extremely demanding for all instrumental groups, but the hr-Sinfonieorchester took it in their stride, boding well for what promises to a fascinating exploration of the other symphonies over the coming seasons.
I just hope they'll be performed in the orchestra's normal subscription series, leaving space in Barock+ for works that really merit inclusion there.