Cornelius Meister has long been a champion of young Czech composer Miroslav Srnka, not only as chief conductor of the RSO Wien but also in Heidelberg, where he was Generalmusikdirektor from 2005 until earlier this year. Reading Lessons is a work commissioned by Heidelberg that now comes to Vienna as part of a broader Srnka focus in the current RSO season (just last month Nicolas Hodges premiered a piano concerto with the orchestra), though presentation as part of the staid overture-concerto-symphony format has done his voice fewer favours this time around. Meister usually has success avoiding tokenism in this regard – in his very first RSO concert as chief conductor, Chopin’s first piano concerto dissolved brilliantly into Joanna Wozny’s disintegrated, even though the two composers share little beyond nationality – but chromium-plated modernism as curtain opener remains by and large a hit-or-miss proposition.
Constructed as a lopsided arch with incremental gestures sluggishly precipitating a brief statement of full orchestral force, Reading Lessons runs a less than fully-formed course and, though imaginatively written and consummately orchestrated, is too short to be littered with quite so many departures and tangents, like the whimpered high double bass notes which reference the severing of John the Baptist’s head in Strauss’s Salome. Though otherwise not programmatic, the piece is nominally inspired by children who were spared during the 2005 Pakistan earthquake despite a school roof collapsing over the heads (during the reading lessons of the work’s title), and a musical response to heartening fortune in the midst of calamity can perhaps be heard in the aphoristic solo violin coda that emerges once the orchestral tension subsides. As always in contemporary music the RSO Wien’s playing was tightly disciplined, though the turbulent central section seemed to call for more violence.
In Vienna, Mozart concertos are more the territory of the Wiener Symphoniker, following a performance style honed during the 1950s by Josef Krips and Hans Swarowsky and later consolidated under Karajan. Mozart in general is less the RSO Wien’s repertoire, though stepping in at the last minute for an indisposed Fabio Luisi earlier this year Cornelius Meister made his Concertgebouw debut with a 40th symphony both fresh and free of contrived excitement, and spoke astutely in the intermission about articulation in Mozart to Austrian radio. This clarinet concerto went altogether less successfully, with accuracy in the winds and musicality all round sacrificed for a senselessly brisk tempo, giving rise only to the thought that there are surely better ways of livening up this old warhorse, starting maybe with attention paid to its unusual key scheme, here ploughed through as if nothing out of the ordinary. If soloist Sabine Meyer sounded hampered by the pacing, there was little in her playing to suggest a more insightful performance under more accommodating circumstances and she hasn’t made this work her own in the manner of, say, Martin Fröst. Phrasing was elegant but conventional, and contrast limited to dynamics, operating within an already restricted mp-mf range. Meyer’s oaky bass register came more to the fore in the second movement, dovetailing nicely with her more beguiling efforts at spinning out a line, though this movement is always a dissatisfying experience when the orchestra doesn’t listen to the soloist’s phrasing and some smooth voice-leading from the horns aside, wasn’t much of an improvement on the first movement. The rondo was similarly lively but seemed to breathe more, and yet expressively had little to say on the part of either soloist or conductor.
Meister has been regularly programming Martinů’s symphonies for the last two years and the orchestra has responded during that time with some of its finest performances, a record to which this concert added. Fantaisies symphoniques, the sixth and final of Martinů’s symphonies, all of them written in U.S. exile, shows more overtly an American influence, even if that is little more than a flagrant appropriation of Coplandic rhythm and harmony (the symphony’s most conspicuous non sequitur comes a mere three minutes in, with an F major outbreak of prairie music pivoted to with a somewhat feeble Lombardic dactyl). One of the great strengths of Meister’s Martinů is how well he takes this in his stride, refusing to allow this music to get lumbered with the absurd marketing weight of ‘forgotten masterpiece’ advocacy, instead coolly figuring out what works and what doesn’t: looseness of form in the first movement was played to the best advantage while any outsized protean claims for Martinů’s thematic material were avoided; the principle theme in the second movement – an unholy cross between the ‘Purgatorio’ from Mahler 10 and yet more Copland – Meister took much further without permitting it to prattle; and an immense broadness of sound to the opening of the third movement distracted me from the drift that sets in soon after for far longer than the recordings I have heard. The very end – reached circuitously through a snatched gloss on Mahler 2’s E flat major parts – was quietly resplendent, serving to crown this symphony with more dignity than it perhaps deserves. In that moment the notion of doing sincerely felt and even-handed justice to a second-rate work seemed quite the pay off, to be valued far above and beyond another superfluous Eroica pointlessly churned out.
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