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S & H Concert Review

Berg, Bartók, Mahler: Zoltán Kocsis (piano); Philharmonia Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi. RFH, February 21st, 2002 (CC)

Christoph von Dohnányi has become associated with the music of the Second Viennese School through a succession of recordings, chief amongst them the angst-ridden Erwartung and a highly regarded (by some) Wozzeck. The Romantic excesses of Mahler also seem to suit his temperament. And if there is one piece that exemplifies this late-Romantic energy, it is Mahler’s first symphony.

Quite an achievement, then, for pianist Zoltán Kocsis to single-handedly overshadow the rest of the programme. Already this season, London has been treated to a fine account of Bartók’s First Piano Concerto (Zimerman, again with the Philharmonia, this time under Paavo Järvi). If anything Kocsis was even truer to Bartók’s spirit (being Budapest-born, the music is clearly in his blood). His sound has a rightness about it for this repertoire: clear and cutting enough for the most incisive of rhythmic patterns yet holding within itself the capacity for glacial expression. His control of the piano was spellbinding, whether juxtaposing and terracing dynamics or displaying the highest virtuosity in the cadenza. The wit of the first movement is not always brought out in this piece, but Kocsis was fully aware of it (a pity Dohnányi was not prepared to match him in this respect). Piano and orchestra were, however, of one mind in the second movement’s bare textures of piano, timpani and, as it turned out, mobile phone.

Dohnányi was able to shadow his soloist to a remarkable degree, giving the rhythmic inertia of the finale a dizzying impetus. No less involving was Kocsis’ ability to shade his tone in pianissimo waves of sound which were intrinsically Hungarian, a world away from French Impressionism.

Alban Berg’s Passacaglia (1913) received its UK première at this concert. It is based on a theme in G minor which nevertheless includes all twelve notes of the total chromatic, followed by eleven variations. The piece actually functioned as part of Berg’s preparations for the Three Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6 and was ‘completed and prepared for performance’ by Christian von Borres. It contains hints of Wozzeck, prefiguring passages following Marie’s murder, and is characteristically Bergian: immediately after the first statement of the theme, the texture becomes chromatically saturated. It is true that it lacks the finish of the approved works of Berg’s canon (some brass imitative passages are contrived), but it nevertheless is a fascinating part of the jigsaw of this elusive composer and his output.

The very youthful exuberance of Mahler’s First Symphony coupled with its propensity for virtuoso orchestral effect (it is a compendium of devices) makes it problematical. An interpretation should add up to more than the sum of isolated events, and Dohnányi only rarely achieved this. The most successful movement was the third, the minor-key meditation on Frère Jacques: towards the close, Dohnányi portrayed Mahler’s juxtapositions of material, quite correctly, as a direct Austrian equivalent of Charles Ives’ similar methods. Perhaps both composers do indeed represents similar responses to the closing years of Romanticism (the parallel between the two even extends to Mahler’s evocation of a village band, not so far removed from Ives’ brass bands). Praise should also be heaped on the solo double bassist, who for once did not seem overwhelmed by the limelight.

Elsewhere in the symphony, all was not quite up to this standard. Dohnányi’s tempo for the second movement ignored Mahler’s exhortation ‘nicht zu schnell’ and in doing so robbed it of its very Austrianness, thereby missing its evocation of a Lederhosen-heavy stomp. One longed for more revelling in the joy of life itself in the first movement: there has to be room for the sun to shine through and between the notes. Possibly because of this, the climax did not have quite the requisite air of inevitability about it.

It takes the blazing dedication of a Bernstein to rescue the yawning expanse that is the final movement, and Dohnányi did not quite manage it. Things did not get off to the best of starts with an accidental ‘pre’-cymbal clash to the first tutti. It was the brass which rescued the day, with a fine peroration (horns standing as they blared out the final statements) which certainly met with the audience’s approval.

Colin Clarke


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