Saturday 23 April 2016

Surprising combination: Bruckner Orchestra Linz in Beethoven and Philip Glass

Buckner Orchestra Linz
Buckner Orchestra Linz
Beethoven, Philip Glass; Melvyn Tan, Bruckner Orchestra Linz, Dennis Russell Davies; Cadogan Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 22 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Spanning 200 years, symphonic music by Beethoven and Philip Glass from this distinguished Austrian orchestra

For their second appearance at the Cadogan Hall on 22 April 2016, the Bruckner Orchestra Linz and their chief conductor Dennis Russell Davies, combined Beethoven's Overture to King Stephen and Piano Concerto No. 4 with Philip Glass's Symphony No. 9. The soloist in the concerto was to have been the young Austrian pianist Ingolf Wunder, but illness meant he was replaced at the last minute by Melvyn Tan who had been the soloist in the orchestra's concert the previous night. Philip Glass's symphony was commissioned by Dennis Russell Davies in 2011 and is one of a number of Glass's orchestral works which they have commissioned (and their recordings of Glass's ten symphonies have been released in an 11 CD box set).

Beethoven was commissioned to write music for König Stephen (King Stephen) in 1811, the work was a play written to celebrate the opening of the new German theatre in Pest (King Stephen was the first Hungarian ruler to adopt Christianity). Beethoven wrote an overture and nine other numbers, the overture is rarely performed and the other incidental music almost never.

Beethoven starts the overture with strong opening chords followed by dancing Mozartian music, this alternation repeated in striking fashion before the music worked up into a vibrant whole. The stage was very full, with a string body numbering around four dozen, and the orchestra made a strong, firm sound. Not HIP, but very stylish in sound and I was impressed by the balance between wind and strings, without the strings being over dominant.

Despite his last minute substitution, there was certainly nothing last minute about Melvyn Tan's performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 and he played from memory. The work was written in 1807 (four years before the overture) and premiered in the mammoth concert which Beethoven gave including both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Choral Fantasy and parts of the Mass in C.

Buckner Orchestra Linz
Buckner Orchestra Linz
The work opens in striking fashion with Beethoven effectively re-shaping the relationship between soloist and orchestra.
Melvyn Tam's opening phrase was quite intimate and beautifully shaped, and it was followed by a very strong sense of him saying to the orchestra, now follow that. The orchestral contribution was stylish and poised, with a nice strength of tone. The sound was full but quite tight and focused, certainly not too big considering how full the platform was. Throughout, Tam showed great grace and poise, certainly very poetic but with some strong moments and a great cadenza. The second movement opens with the moment associated with Orpheus taming the wild beasts. Whether true or not, Tam's intimate playing really drew you in with great fluidity of touch. This was followed by the lively finale, full of character but again with a nice combination of fluidity of playing and poetry from both soloist and orchestra. Considering the forces on the stage, this was a remarkably intimate and considered view of the concerto, and its principal characteristic might be described as poetic strength.

The orchestra combines its own concert series in Linz and in Vienna with being resident at Opera Linz, with Dennis Russell Davies being chief conductor of the orchestra and of Opera Linz. The orchestra has a 200 year history, yet in 2013 the new Musiktheater designed by Terry Pawson opened.

After the interval came Philip Glass's Symphony No. 9, and the platform got ever fuller with instruments like the contra-bass clarinet which are rarely heard on the symphonic stage. The work is in three movements, though Glass gives them no superscriptions apart from Movement I, Movement II and Movement III. Glass still seems to divide people, the performance drew loud applause from the audience at Cadogan Hall but it was noticeable that a quite number of people had absented themselves. And one of my reviewing colleagues had, before the concert, expressed strong antipathy to the idea of listening to Philip Glass. I have to admit that I had heard little, if any, Glass live since I attended the UK premiere of Akhnaten. I have to confess to being surprised at how much Glass's music appealed to me, and D. was entranced commenting that he had found Glass's use of the orchestra completely fascinating.

Certainly it was intriguing and a relief to hear American-style minimalism performed simply by a large orchestra and without any hint of amplification. Glass's handling of the orchestra was masterly and he used his large palate of instrumental colours to create a wide variety of timbres rather than pure noise. Though there are three contrasted movements, the music is constructed in Glass's familiar blocks where each block has a particular pulse and the drama comes from the movement between blocks. There is no development in the classical sense, simply juxtaposition. The harmony and melodic shapes would barely frighten Sir Charles Villiers Stanford but the way Glass jump cuts is striking, and each section had its own steady pulse. The most notable feeling being the steady throbbing which went through the entire piece.

The opening movement developed quite a head of steam, I have to confess that I did not really detect its ABA structure. Throughout the orchestra displayed superb control, complete with the dying fall ending. The second movement started with a slow romantic sound, the basic pulse was a lot slower and the throbbing became a rocking motion with lyrical tunes over. A move toward excitement ended in mid-air, followed by a return to the more romantic but not without excitement. For the last movement, my notes include the phrase 'fast train music' and there was lovely slow build until it suddenly all fell away leaving just marimba and bassoons. In the programme book, Philip Glass in conversation with Richard Guérin refers to the ending being the quietest in all music which seems to reflect lack of knowledge of RVW's Sixth Symphony. Glass thins the orchestra down and leaves us with wisps, including a pair of solo violins and finally just a contrabass clarinet and bassoon.

The loud approbation of the audience afterwards was certainly well deserved. The orchestra under Dennis Russell Davies's strong direction brought great combination of technical skill with warmth of tone, there was no sense of strain in Glass's repeated motor rhythms, all highly expressive.

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