The risen Christ and a dramatic figure who resists the Christian promise of redemption make for odd conceptual bedfellows, not least of all in a Vienna Philharmonic programme which here saw Messiaen’s L’Ascension sandwiched between the Schumann and Tchaikovsky treatments of Byron’s Manfred. Programmatic appreciation of the music was however largely futile, with Vladimir Jurowski’s intense but one-dimensional conducting giving rise to few associations and rendering the Schumann overture and Tchaikovsky symphony distinguishable from each other only by the brute force brought to bear, which increased steadily as the evening progressed.
The Schumann was finely played except for some minor string and wind coordination towards the end. A general lack of dynamic contrast, which became more pronounced with each work on the programme, inhibited much of the expressive power Jurowski’s dark and brooding account might have had, but unlike the Messiaen and Tchaikovsky this was a performance one could return to for a second hearing.
L’Ascension is a much more persuasive work in its arrangement for organ, which replaces the rather flat ‘Alleluia sur la trompette, alleluia sur la cymbale’ with the ecstatic showpiece ‘Transports de joie’, a counterstatement to the pessimistic frenzy of the famous organ solo in Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass and also a dry run of sorts for the ‘Dieu parmi nous’ toccata Messiaen would later write to crown La Nativité du Seigneur. Clarity of texture in the other movements is enhanced on the organ, though it is not only Boulez who has shown this to be possible in the orchestral version.
This performance, by contrast, was only effective as an object lesson in how not to play the work: the outer movements, whose form and impact is dependent on intensification, began forte and had nowhere to go, while the opening theme of ‘Alleluias sereins’ was ploughed through breathlessly with barely a thought given to articulation or phrasing, and later acquired a dislikeable aggressive edge. Despite intonation a fraction off in a few places, the brass were impressively gleaming in ‘Majesté du Christ demandant sa gloire à son Père’, though the grand cadences lacked any sense of arrival, carrying all the majesty of a passenger late for a commuter train. A highly conspicuous split trumpet note on the final chord was unfortunate. Striving for the heavens came early in the final movement, which depicts the Ascension itself, with pulsing vibrato that came to sound oddly cold when coupled with the violins’ indiscriminately fierce attack. This mystical work, written in an idiom touched in more than a few places by impressionism, cries out for bright colours and tonal contrast; here it was only brutalized.
The opening of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony saw a return to the full-blooded romantic playing of the Schumann, although heaviness picked up along the way, and threatened at times to make the music sound stodgier than Brahms. The Manfred theme stated at the beginning, which comes to bear more than a passing resemblance to the first subject of the Fifth Symphony, seemed to grow a little in character and possessed a clearly phrased span and rich string timbre by the end. Some much-needed subtlety came with the wind solos, but everything else in this movement was on the tasteless side and weighted down by the inexplicable need to follow through in volume on the intensity of attack. The second movement was precise, taut, and entirely devoid of charm or individuality. The Andante initially provided some respite from the craggy, hulking masses of the first movement and what was to come, but was far from lovely. The first G major idyll recalled the vulnerable, protected world of Iolanta, albeit fleetingly; storminess intruded a good deal too early and gave the momentary return of G major no chance. The opening of the final movement was garishly loud and, with ensemble a mess, scarcely recognizable as a fugue. Things remained cacophonous and sloppy until the stillness of the central section, interrupted from time to time by some incongruous crashing and banging from the trombones.
The cymbal clash of the development was another poorly prepared climax with too much expended too early, but the harp glissandi, like rising mists, were simply gorgeous and, from my vantage point, the work of at least one woman. This orchestra has enough equality problems to make mention of feminine musicianship quite unnecessary, but I bring it up only to observe that if there was ever a concert to listen to the orchestra through a gendered filter, the brainless machismo of this virtually all-male performance, which staggered from one premature climax to the next, was it. A stronger musical case for modernizing hiring practices could not have been made.
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