September 27, 2007

One Shot

Grimaud and the Philharmonic with Bartók and Hans Rott's Only Symphony


Béla Bartók
Klavierkonzert Nr. 3 Sz 119

Hans Rott
Symphonie E-Dur


Berliner Philharmoniker
Neeme Järvi - Conductor
Hélène Grimaud - Piano

Leserbrief/readers comment Druckversion/printversion

One Shot

Grimaud and the Philharmonic with Bartók and Hans Rott's Only Symphony

by Nancy Chapple / Photo (Grimaud): Kasskara/Deutsche Grammophon

Hélène Grimaud

Right off the bat: this reviewer admits to significant pre-conceptions about how Bartók's Third Piano Concerto should be played. Many years ago, I performed the work myself, and I can't help listening for the elements I consider crucial to the work. On this evening, conductor, orchestra and soloist took a while to mesh and create one sound, as Hélène Grimaud seemed to be playing faster than the rest. Neeme Järvi tried to hold the orchestra back, not letting them catch her infectious habit of rushing. The pianist—less imposing and less confident in her body language than expected from one embarking on a major career—applied a pearly, rounded, legato, pianistically polished tone that carried beautifully above the orchestra to the entire work. But the tone remained uniform throughout, without variation. And where the score calls for tension in the interplay between the piano and the orchestra, for instance in the poco più mosso of the slow movement, she topped it all off with a warm, round sound. Instead of nocturnal animals slithering across the desert, there was nothing mysterious in Grimaud's interpretation-too fast, too metronomical, not magical enough. The fugue in the Allegro vivace was fast and precise, but not playful or frisky. The last movement provides many passages where the soloist can literally play with the orchestra, enter into a dialogue and banter, but that didn't happen. It was as if the piece were new in her repertoire, or she had had few rehearsals with the orchestra. Hélène Grimaud seemed almost embarrassed about the applause she received.

Neeme Järvi

Those readers who keep up-to-date in the musicology world would have heard the story of Hans Rott's E-major Symphony, composed in 1878-1880. In brief, the composer studied with Anton Bruckner, was a contemporary of Gustav Mahler's, and was devastated by criticism of his work by Johannes Brahms, in particular of this symphony, so much so that he apparently lost his mind and four years later, aged only 25, died upon refusing nourishment in the clinic where he was suffering from tuberculosis. The first performance whatsoever of this work was by the Cincinnati Symphony in 1989, and since then there has been a small Rott boom, with occasional performances and CD recordings of this and other works.

So what does the E-major Symphony sound like? The man had many ideas—melodies, harmonic progressions, unusual choices of instrumentation—and it seems he made use of his one and only opportunity to get them all down in a symphony. The Alla breve starts with a sweet melody in the brass and satisfying movie-music-like harmonic progressions, but without much counterpoint: the brass simply leading, the strings filling it in rhythmically. The second movement had a touch of Pomp and Circumstances with a long build-up over many phrases. But something new did grow out of the long cadence, with emerging efforts to shift to a new mood. One of Rott's favorite effects was a sensation of suspension, created by tremolos in the strings. The Scherzo returned to humorous platitudes in well-trodden paths until it got funnier, as if he were making fun of typical Volksmusik by distorting the rhythms and adding an underlying pedal tone. All at once the music was stirring, charming, surprising. Throughout, the orchestra seemed to have great fun with the melodies, with the build-up; together it was a much more coherent group effort than the piano concerto. The conductor also seemed to be having a ball, playing the Scherzo up as a farce, exaggerating his gestures and seeing what he could draw out of the famously responsive orchestra. The fourth movement was grave once again after the outrageousness of the third. Again: too bad Hans Rott didn't take some of his many ideas and develop them a bit more. The final Fuga was in a pleasing diatonic mode. The composer found another way to suspend movement through time by imposing layers on top of each other, making the sound glow and shine. How very satisfying the playing of the great brass players of the Berlin Philharmonic!