Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House: 21 September 2012
Henri Dutilleux – Mystère de l’instant
Mozart – Piano concerto no 20 in D minor, K 466
Angela Hewitt – piano
Beethoven – Symphony no 4 in B flat, opus 60
The Sydney Symphony Orchestra
Hannu Lintu – conductor
In Henri Dutilleux’s Mystère d l’instante for 24 strings, cimbalom and percussion it is easy to dwell on the cimbalom as a freak in the concert hall, but Hungarian Xavér Ferenc Szabó introduced it to the symphony orchestra in the 19th century when it was essentially gypsy folk music instrument and later Zoltán Kodály used it in the 20th century in his symphonic music. The instrument is far older, a sort of piano before the keyboard and related mechanism were invented, probably used in the middle and near east in ancient times, coming west not too much later. One music historian describes its sound “rather like a piano that has taken its clothes off!”1 That gives the cimbalom an unfair primitive appearance, its construction no doubt demands as much care and refined techniques as any to sound so convincing next to the usual bowed strings. It no doubt strikes the ears of a modern audience accustomed to symphonic music as antique or near eastern, at least exotic, but I don’t think Dutilleux intended to make any such avant-garde statement for its own sake, and the piece certainly doesn’t have the form of a concerto. Rather I think he wanted a windless orchestra, a study in strings, without even much plucking, mostly bowing and tapping, if we can think of the percussion instruments as two dimensional strings. This gives the whole piece a remarkable smooth texture, since the cimbalom has such an expressive, rounded, unpercussive tone, especially next to the very bright Steinway which was next in the program. The number of bowed strings forbids much individual expression, it is symphonic music, and on this glassy, even slippery surface, the percussion rarely makes more than ripples. (Slippery enough, anyway, for the rather conservative audience, judging from the very loud protesting coughs throughout the performance and the apprehensive comments muttered just before it started.) The Sydney Symphony’s sharp bowing and tight string ensemble were particularly tight and even in this performance. The odd solo melodies here and there, one on viola — though particularly expressive —, and in the extreme high register of the double basses never stood out of the group playing very much. The strong contrast they draw with the very rich, low, cello-heavy chords which appear briefly now and then in the piece, gave these chords a certain sudden, even harsh quality.
Beneath that smooth surface and its atonal and dissonant, though neither serialist nor very extreme, but often open chords, and the vague melodies, there is music. The expressiveness of this music did get lost somewhat under the heavy concentration of the musicians on the ensemble timbre, far from pedantic though, and Hannu Lintu just in bringing this piece to its (professional) Australian première shows a certain passion for the music. The delicacy of playing in some for the sections was very understanding, and despite the seeming short intensity of the piece on one listening, a wider encompassing, very old, very human, though still of course very modern sense came from the music.
Mozart’s D minor piano concerto, the first of only two he made in a minor key, which partly gives it its popularity, showing even some the pre-romantic Sturm und Drang Mozart took to enthusiastically around the time he composed it, sometimes also gives conductors leave to bring to it a certain Beethovenesque (5th symphony) style to its performances, bringing to bare a large romantic symphony orchestra. If I got this impression and heard a bit of blandness or muddiness of tone in the playing and if the cellos and basses sounded disconnected from the violins, it is partly from bringing my ears from a very memorable performance of Monteverdi on period instruments two nights prior, and it is difficult to retune ears and expectations back to a modern symphony orchestra. Angela Hewitt runs through the impossible sections of this music with great control and the image of ease, and though the Paul Badura-Skoda and Jean-Paul Sévilla cadenzas she chose to play were particularly difficult ones, really able to stand as préludes or études on their own, they don’t appeal to me for that very reason — they try too hard to be their own piece of music, are strongly romantic, and showy and egocentric as pieces of music, wrestling with the larger concerto rather than cleaving to it while generously giving us more of the pianist. Moreover, it would have been really nice to hear the Beethoven cadenzas for this concerto with an ear to the fine Beethoven 4th to come. Hewitt played with a rather brittle articulation of the melodies, taking each as it came, while seeming to withdraw from and rush the connecting development passages between the sonata form’s main themes. The orchestra had some trouble staying with her, though by the second and third movements they were playing more tightly as a group in the orchestral sections and sounding even more romantic. Drawing bright sparks from the Steinway & Sons piano, a certain sharpness to each note even while tying them together in a legato phrase, she didn’t have too heavy handed a pyrotechnic quality, but dazzled and lost the more delicate expressiveness of the music, especially of Mozart’s simpler phrases.
Hannu Lintu’s conducting style came out much more for the Beethoven 4th Symphony. He is very tall, even imposing in his long black coat and with his enormous baton, though he’ll often temper this, bending right over and conducting from the hip, or even mid-thigh, for a measure or two. Sometimes for a few moments he wouldn’t beat time at all, rather letting the orchestra’s momentum take them along, and they played here finely, with a particularly smooth polish, but certainly with dynamic nuance. This was especially so in the more delicate, expressive, turned in passages, as if Lintu trusted them to stay together, perhaps encouraging a fitting ritard, while directing with an expressive gesture. On the other hand, the swelling crescendos, smooth, seaming gradual at first but then rearing up strongly, showed fine control, and he did beat time here, with the free hand as well. The woodwinds sounded much less worried about being heard than in the Mozart, and were very expressive, especially clarinetist Francesco Celata who played movingly (also in the Mozart), evocative of the little birds Beethoven brings in with such care and treats so gently. The horns were particularly strong on this evening, with an impressive and characterful, generous swell to their tone and phrasing without ever blaring out excessively or violently. The playing here made one want to hear more, making the piece seem rather too short with its generally brisk tempo and the coherence of the interpretation, helping to bring heft and solidity while the delicacy of the playing gave it freedom of movement, sparing the fairies. Lintu seemed to understand Beethoven doesn’t need too heavy a hand to be heard.
- Percy M. Young Keyboard Musicians of the World. ↩