Mining the rich veins of German Romanticism was what Marek Janowski and the WDR Symphony Orchestra set about doing in this concert. It also had a pretty old-fashioned feel to it in the way it followed a once tried-and-tested formula: overture, concerto, symphony. More recently this has gone out of fashion, though it has much to commend it. The thinking went a little like this: the overture gives the orchestra time to play itself in, the concerto is an additional focus of interest, especially for star-struck audiences, and the symphony is the large meaty dish that provides substance and ensures satiety.

Marek Janowski
© Felix Broede

So how did the Rhinelanders get on? I’m tempted to jump in with an immediate conclusion: must do better. This applies especially to the presentational side. There were no credits at the end, but those responsible need to take a leaf out of the book of other German radio and television stations. This was below par: restless and jerky camerawork with occasional shots out of focus, often picking out players who were inaudible at that point in the score, camera operators a visible distraction in Cologne’s Philharmonie, the soloist shown through microphone stands. To add insult to injury, sound and vision were not always properly synchronised. Come the interval I was reminded of those infuriatingly long telephone calls when the caller is placed on hold and is forced to endure the same piece of music in an endless loop. Despite being told that there would be a short break (how “short” is short in Cologne, I wonder?), the same two minutes from Brahms’ Haydn Variations went round and round for all of twenty minutes. This was not a live concert, so there was also no excuse for delays in rearranging the platform or the long wait before the conductor reappeared for the main work.

And what about the music itself? The mists at the start of the Hebrides had already been blown away by the prevailing westerly winds, the slightly under-nourished string tone (just five violas, four cellos and three double basses) not suggestive of anything approaching a gale. Atmosphere was left to look after itself.

Vadim Gluzman is a most accomplished player. His rich, dark tone was evident from the outset and the furious double-stopping required in the Finale of Bruch's Violin Concerto no. 1 in G minor held no fear for him. One could admire the uncompromising way in which a tempo – very often a brisk one – was adhered to without any personal indulgences. Yet the marking for the opening movement is Allegro moderato and Adagio for what should be a prayer-like interlude of introspection before the final round of fireworks. Passion was certainly conveyed, but Gluzman rarely explored much deeper feeling.

There are two possible approaches to Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, which Janowski directed here without a score in the revised version of 1851. As heroes go, do you prefer the brooding Heathcliff (Emily Brontë’s novel appeared just four years earlier) or the buccaneering Sergeant Troy in one of Hardy’s creations a generation later? Both such manifestations of the Romantic spirit are there in the music, as countless interpreters have uncovered. Janowski opted for a swashbuckling course, rhythmically alert from the start, injecting a slightly manic mood into the elements of string counterpoint and driving into the coda of the first movement with all sails to the wind. The two inner movements allowed no dust to settle, with the B flat major Trio section chivvied along, and then after a finely shaped bridge passage (Schumann’s debt to Beethoven’s Fifth) a jet-propelled Finale with imposing trombones, whooping horns and thrilling violin tremolos. Stirring stuff.

 

This performance was reviewed from the WDR live video stream

***11