Monday, March 11, 2013

Barock+ March 8 and 9, 2013


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.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

hr-Sinfonieorchester Barock+ Series

If I had any bone at all to pick with the excellent hr-Sinfonieorchester or Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra -- which must arguably be one of the best of Germany's radio symphony orchestras at the moment -- it'd be about the labeling of its phenomenally successful Barock+ series. 

The brainchild of former chief conductor, Hugh Wolff, the idea was to pair the orchestra with leading exponents -- both conductors and soloists -- of the early music, period instrument or historically informed performance movement and explore repertoire that is nowadays no longer associated which a large modern symphony orchestra.

It was Wolff, during his nine-year tenure in Frankfurt from 1997 until 2006, who first introduced valveless horns and trumpets and kettle drums for performances of the symphonies of Haydn and Beethoven, changed the seating order of the strings and minimized their use of vibrato. 

In that sense, neither the orchestra nor the audience was treading on wholly unfamiliar ground when the Barock+ series was launched in November 2004.

But what was exciting was the prospect of the orchestra tackling -- on modern instruments and at a modern concert pitch of A = 440 Hz -- works that seem to have dropped out of the repertoire of a modern symphony orchestra and become the sole preserve of period instrument ensembles. 

The very first concert on November 26, 2004, featured countertenor Andreas Scholl in arias by Händel sandwiched between Haydn's 89th and 91st symphonies.

On December 17 of the same year, the irrepressible Emmanuelle Haïm gave her German debut conducting Händel's rarely performed oratorio La Resurrezione while Christopher Hogwood conducted works by Haydn, Mozart and Schnittke on February 25th, 2005.

Wait a minute. Run that by me again. 
Ah yes. Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) made use of baroque forms in his works. 
I get it. He composed a number of Concerti Grossi
The series, so it seemed, would explore the influences of the baroque on later composers and their music. Hence the "+" added to the series' title.  

Many of the hr-Sinfonieorchester's regular subscribers have never seemed inordinately fond of baroque music anyway. 
Maybe Wolff saw it as way of making it more palatable for an audience that generally only wants to hear the core classical and romantic repertoires. 

Given such prejudices, I sense it came as something of a surprise to all concerned that Barock+ proved such a runaway success.
The Sendesaal -- with its excellent acoustics and much more intimate atmosphere than the Alte Oper where the hr-Sinfonieorchester gives its regular subscriptions series -- was regularly sold out. And over the years, the series was lengthened from three to four concerts and extended from one to two nights.

Nevertheless, for real baroque aficionados, the title of the series has always appeared rather tenuous, a bit of a "Mogelpackung" to use the German term.  
The number of baroque works actually performed has never been particularly extensive, with the focus largely on the early classical.
In fact,  I've heard a number of subscribers quip that a more appropriate name would be "Klassik minus" rather than Barock+.

Of course, that is not do dismiss the high quality of the performances per se, even of the non-baroque works. 

Last season, Jean-Christophe Spinosi, after conducting the overtures to Händel's Serse and Rameau's Platée before the interval, took everyone by surprise and gave an eye-opening interpretation of Ravel's La Valse and Boléro in the second half. Not repertoire you would normally associate with the man who has almost single-handedly pioneered the renaissance of interest in Vivaldi's operas.

I don't mean to be curmudgeonly.
After all, Emmanuelle Haïm returned last November to conduct an exquisite programme of Lully, Purcell and Rameau.

But the next concert in this season's series very much demonstrates my point.
OK. There will be a baroque work: Bach's B-minor Suite performed with the orchestra's phenomenal solo flautist, Sebastian Wittiber.  
But that's where the "Barock" stops.
Dazzling a player though Sebastian is, I can't imagine he'll be playing on a baroque flute or even a wooden Böhm one. 
Then Fazıl Say will perform Mozart's A-major Concerto KV 414.
And most puzzling of all,  Paavo Järvi will conduct the hr-Sinfonieorchester in Franz Schmidt's 2nd Symphony after the interval.
I don' think it's uncharitable to say that the choice of works seems, ahem, a little arbitrary. 

[Järvi, it should be pointed out, has never previously conducted a Barock+ concert during his entire time in Frankfurt, which comes to an end this season.
And while he has taken on board some historically informed practices for his critically acclaimed Beethoven and Schumann cycles, Järvi is not a conductor you'd normally turn to for early classical or baroque repertoire.]

In fact, the only reason that I can see that Schmidt (1874-1939) -- a late Romantic composer barely known outside his home country of Austria -- is being performed is that Järvi will be conducting his 3rd Symphony next season and is embarking on a cycle of all four symphonies.
That's all well and good. But what has it got to do with the baroque?
Perhaps the programme notes will enlighten me and explain the dramaturgy behind it all.

Watch this space for a write-up of the concerts on Friday, March 8 and Saturday, March 9.