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Berg and Beethoven: a review of two concerts

Lee Ou-fan

After a summer hiatus I am thrown back into Hong Kong’s hectic classical music scene. Having missed all the late summer activities, I managed to catch two concerts by Hong Kong’s two leading ensembles: one by the Hong Kong Sinfonietta with its concert master, James Cuddeford, playing Alban Berg’s violin concerto; and the Beethoven Eroica Symphony with the Hong Kong Philharmonic (HKPO) under the baton of the famous Polish conductor Antoni Wit .[Art Pus should apologize for the wrong photo attributed to this maestro in a recent issue]. The first night’s concert (14/9) at the City Hall did not attract a hug crowd; the next night ‘s (15/9) concert, to my surprise, was packed. Of course it has nothing to do with the playing of the musicians of either ensemble, nor with the reputations of the conductors (the relatively younger Daniel Raiskin showed an equally masterful technique as the senior Wit). The difference, I guess, really boils down to the programming.

For a long time, the music of the Second Viennese School—Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern—was poison to the general audience in America, an audience becoming increasingly conservative in their musical tastes as they grow older. Hong Kong’s general audience, in comparison, is younger (at least looking “middle-aged”). Why is it that the Berg concerto, which to me is an angelic jewel of a composition, should suffer the same fate? Here one must give credit to James Cuddeford (a composer himself) and to the guest conductor Daniel Raiskin for choosing a program that features the Berg as a center piece and pairs with two other pieces that make eminent sense: Weber’s orchestration of Bach’s Ricercare (from the Musical Offering) in the first half, and Brahms’s Second in the second .

As is well known, these three composers, for all their compositional radicalism, respected Bach and Brahms. The musical motifs of Bach run through both the Webern and the Berg pieces, yet are reshaped and transformed in radically different ways. Alban Berg is known as the most lyrical of the three, but Webern also holds surprises. Personally I don’t care that much about the concerto’s personal associations (dedicated to Manon Gropius, the diseased daughter of Walter Gropius and Alma Schindler, Mahler’s widow, but also containing veiled references to Berg’s own secret love life). Rather I am impressed by its compositional skill. The structure of the concerto is like an arc stemming from the simple open-string four-note theme, then rising and shining into serial splendor before returning to the “home base. Cuddeford’s performance was impeccable as he negotiated all the difficult passages and transitions with assured ease.

The Sinfonietta’s performance of the Brahms Second leaves something to be desired. Despite their valiant effort, the musicians seemed to be lagging slightly behind the conductor’s gestured intentions. Apparently they did a splendid job of Brahms First under the Taiwanese conductor Chien Wen-bin 簡文彬two weeks before—a concert I missed.

What accounts for a packed house? Answer: Beethoven! Especially the odd-numbered symphonies—the Third, Fifth, Seventh, and Ninth—so goes the rumor, as I asked a few old-timers during the intermission. Frankly I was disappointed by the programming which shows little coherence: music by two French composers (Franck’s seldom performed Le Chasseur Maudit and Saint-Saens’ Second Piano Concerto as performed by the young Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter) paired with Beethoven’s monumental symphony. The Franck piece was played very loudly, perhaps deservedly so. The Saint-Saens concerto is rarely heard nowadays. This is the first time I heard Fliter, whose looks and technique remind me of the young Martha Argerich. Her playing was also brilliant and wildly cheered. She then followed with two encores of Chopin, which was rendered with an idiosyncratic style all her own -- an impression confirmed by her first recording of Chopin’s waltzes. Still, Fliter is a rising star in a crowded and competitive field. Her Chopin certainly offers quite a contrast to Li Yundi.

Now, the Beethoven Third, the highlight of the evening. What can I say about this old classic? I felt asleep during the second movement. This had nothing to do with the performance itself but everything to do with my physical fatigue, having just given a two-hour lecture at the Chinese University, which ended just an hour before the concert began. Two hastily swallowed sandwiches churned in my stomach, producing somnolent effect. I had a strange dream: I dreamt that the count in Franck’s Le Chausseur Maudit who went on a wild hunt and dropped dead was being carried on a coffin during the funeral ceremony, and the music was from Beethoven’s Third symphony. Aha, here is the thematic link, at least in one listener’s dream world.

By the third movement, I woke up with the clearly intoned sound of horns --another serendipitous link with the horns in the Franck piece. Maybe this is what Maestro Wit had in mind in choosing this seldom performed piece.

The performance, from what I was able to hear in concentration—again with profuse apologies to Maestro Wit and the HKPO musicians who played with vigor—was on the slow and ponderous side. For some it makes a deep impact. But it all depends on how you want to hear your Beethoven. The standard against which I measure all ponderous renditions is set by Otto Klemperer, who holds everything together with a granite-like control, producing a noble Eroica. Antoni Wit’s rendition seemed to follow von Karajan’s example, which for most is equally impressive. On the other hand, given the overall scheme of Beethoven’s symphonies, the Third marks both a revolutionary break and an integral part of a long symphonic progression. The recent recording of all nine Beethoven symphonies by Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra follows the latter view, which has left its mark on my memory, although I was bothered by its protrusive timpani-beat. There is also the powerful, over-dramatic recording by the Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra, which made some of my young Mahlerite friends sleepless with excitement. In the shadows of a grand classic, we all have our cherished moments from listening to recordings and attending live performances. But no recording can compete with a live performance if everything comes together like magic. My own favorite live Eroica goes back to some forty years ago, when I was still a young professor at Princeton when the Chicago Symphony when was on tour to New York. At Carnegie Hall I experienced such magic during the last movement of the Eroica as conducted by Georg Solti. The Chicago string sound was spellbinding. Yet despite such fond memory, I have seldom turned to Solti’s recording of this Beethoven symphony.

Apparently this glorious Beethoven classic continued to hold its undying spell over the attentive crowd at the Cultural Centre. In their midst, an old man’s distracted reveries can perhaps be forgiven.

Performance Reviewed:

James Cuddeford: To the Memory of an Angel

14 September 2012, 8pm

Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall

Eroica! Masterworks C Concert

15 September 2012, 8pm

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall

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