Mendelssohn, Britten and Brahms have much in common including a tendency to compose in classical forms and a great respect for folk idioms. All three wrote beautiful songs as well as masterful large scale-compositions, and all three were wonderful pianists. What one might not expect from a programme featuring compositions by these three is that the most prevalent similarity was a significant lack of overarching melodic line or unified compositional architecture. These works, performed in Vienna's Musikverein by Jakub Hrůša and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, were more heterogeneous conglomerations of vastly different stylistic idioms and impulses than they were through-conceived or melodically driven. 

Jakub Hrůša © Pavel Hejnz
Jakub Hrůša
© Pavel Hejnz

Brahms’ tendency to focus on the motif, allowing tiny seeds to germinate and sprout in all sorts of directions and variations, instead of primarily relying on broad, memorable melodies is no trade secret. Hugo Wolf mean-spiritedly remarked that the Fourth Symphony established without doubt that “the art of composing without inspiration has found its worthiest representative in Brahms”. He could – and did – write melodies, of course, and beautiful ones at that, but there is little in the Fourth that one will go home whistling; it feels much more classically inspired at times than romantic. Brahms himself doubted whether it was “sweet” enough to find a positive reception. Clara Schumann openly criticized it and Max Kalbeck, Brahms’ biographer and friend, told him to throw the Scherzo into the trash. That would have been a great shame, as the symphony is a masterful working through of motivic material, allowing snippets to grow, shift and culminate into thickly complex swells of beauty and power which were aptly realized by Hrůša and the Symphoniker. Hrůša exhibited great command and excellent technique throughout, and though there were moments of questionable intonation, the ensemble was a joy to listen to in repertoire that they feel so at home playing.

Mendelssohn and Britten, unlike Brahms, are closely associated with melodic beauty and vocal writing, so it was surprising that their compositions were equally wanting in the melody department. Mendelssohn’s overture on Goethe’s twin poems “Meeresstille” and “Glückliche Fahrt” (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) is programmatic, not melodically driven or classically structured. It begins with a musical rendition of the quiet, foreboding sea. The Symphoniker did justice to the eerie, dark stillness, playing completely without vibrato throughout the opening section. Melodic snippets, a prevalent dotted motif, and varied instrumentation and harmonic modulation then pulled the audience through the fog into the bright sun and a raucous sea voyage followed, until land was sighted with a downward cascade and a fanfare of trumpets. 

Britten’s Piano Concerto, written for the composer to make a splash on the London scene as a virtuoso, is a younger composition, published when he was 25. Although there are snatches of Britten to be found throughout – the third movement is certainly full of dark, Peter Grimes-esque colour and beauty, he does seem to have been trying on musical idioms from Prokofiev to Stravinsky to Bartok. The opening movement is reminiscent of Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony, full of percussive drive. Leif Ove Andsnes drove into the keyboard with fingers of steel and crystalline clarity, his scales and trills gleaming. He seemed to relish the percussive, rhythmic elements and his judicious use of pedal – never hiding behind the sound, but using it to create colour and effect – was exemplary.

Each movement of Britten's concerto could stand alone, having little to do with its neighbours. On the heels of the opening toccata comes a bizarrely deconstructed waltz, opening with tambourine over hemiola-rich solo lines. The third movement is based on a musical theme from a 1937 radio drama called King Arthur, in the form of a passacaglia with seven variations, and the finale is a wild march full of fanfares which sounds not unlike Shostakovich at times.

Like a paperweight made from different stones, shells, rocks and bits of glass, connected by petrified sand, this was a programme full of beautiful, varied yet seemingly unrelated moods and moments, held together by the glue of artistic prowess and a thoroughly enraptured audience.