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Tuesday, December 28, 2004
‘Classical’ Huntington

I can really only distinguish two types of music: one of them is ‘uncompromising’; the other isn’t. And, in case you didn’t know, ‘uncompromising’ is code for ‘extremely difficult for your average person to listen to without reaching for the earplugs’. So here’s a quote from the excellent programme notes for one of the works played at this year’s Huntington Festival. On this occasion, Richard Tognetti writes:
The [works] represent a landmark in the history of music. They are uncompromising. They are one of the purest listening experiences we have.
We heard one of these pieces. To whom was Richard referring? Charles Ives? John Cage? We had works from both of these. A small prize (a Die Walküre ticket stub) to the first to identify the uncompromising symphonist.

There are quite a few works where I appear to be at odds with the critics. Canning writes:
Inevitably, as in his strings-only arrangement of Mendelssohn's [E minor, Op. 64] Violin Concerto, there are rough edges, but the spirit of this much-played music is triumphantly affirmed.
Now, it may have been me but I wasn’t aware of any ‘rough edges’: one of the characteristics of Tognetti’s and the ACO’s playing is the smoothness and rich tonal quality of the string playing, both joint and solo. One gets the impression they couldn’t sound ‘rough’ if they tried. ‘Raw’, possibly; but rough, ‘never’. I found Tognetti’s arrangement and performance of the Mendelssohn totally convincing.

Another of Tognetti’s arrangements - Beethoven’s String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 – was more problematical, even given the known element of experimentation in the Huntington Festival. ‘Will this appeal to more conservative audiences?’ Tognetti seems to be trying to ask. If it’ll work at Huntington, it may work with the subscription audiences. The Beethoven transcription may be a daring attempt at preparing to bring chamber music to a wider audience but it loses an essential characteristic of Beethoven’s magnificent oeuvre: the rough and raw edges. Occasionally, during the arrangement, the strings would ‘narrow’ down to one or two solo instruments (in which case, what’s the purpose of the arrangement?) to make a poignant point, before going back into ‘rich’ mode. I don’t think you can do this with Beethoven’s chamber music unless you require your string players to play roughly/rawly in ensemble and the ACO isn’t the band for this sort of excursion. Full marks for trying – it was an interesting experiment – but fewer for the execution.

Another, modernish piece that seemed to suffer from the richness and warmth of the ACO was Pehr Nordgren’s Portrait of Country Fiddlers, Op. 26. This contemporary Finnish work, ably directed from the fiddle of Satu Vänskä, was just too pretty; one doesn’t expect country fiddlers to sound so effortlessly polished. Nevertheless, a fun piece worthy of inclusion.

Another piece that has me at odds with the critics is Brahms’s Trio for Piano, Horn and Violin in E flat, Op. 64. They rated it ‘sublime’ (Canning) and ‘expertly nuanced’ (Covell); I thought it messy, particularly the horn playing. The next day, the horn player – Robert Johnson - atoned; Mozart’s Quintet for Piano and Winds in E flat, K452, was rendered accurately and delicately. I don’t think I have ever heard a more pleasing performance of this work.

Now to what I term the ‘electrifying’ works and their corresponding performances: Mozart and Beethoven played molto con spirito. Two symphonies by Mozart - K297 The Paris and K551 The Jupiter - were played with great energy, style, and gusto. Then there was Beethoven’s 7th Symphony (The apotheosis of the gallop, as Wagner failed to put it) that moved Canning to raptures. I shall want to hear the recording, if ABC and the ACO release it on CD, to be sure that I am completely satisfied. The performance was certainly thrilling. I loved the attack, the elegant pizzicato at the end of the second movement, and the even more than usual relentlessness of the final movement. The brass parts were highlighted in a way I’d never heard before; they made me think of the orchestration in Schubert’s 8th (Unfinished) Symphony. And I loved the grinning among the second violins. This was a performance to make one think. What more could one want?

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