Classical: Chailly's serial thriller

ROYAL CONCERTGEBOUW ORCHESTRA ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL LONDON

IN ITS Festival Hall programme on Thursday evening, the first of two this year, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra gave a performance of Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces which lived up in every way to the ensemble's international reputation. But, for reasons that are hard to understand, its form in Brahms's Second Symphony seemed indifferent. Perhaps the problems of texture, rhythmic ensemble and articulation in Schoenberg's trail-blazing masterpiece concentrated energies in a way that the more familiar territory of Brahms failed to, or perhaps the absence of the famously responsive Concertgebouw acoustic for Brahms's warm lyricism was a crucial factor. But, whatever the cause, the playing lacked electricity and the conductor Riccardo Chailly's sometimes rather sectional view of Brahms's flowing dialectic did not help matters.

The acceleration that he introduced to bring the finale home to its triumphal conclusion did not seem to flow inevitably from what had gone before, but was imposed from outside the music. Brahms's cumulative rhythmic and thematic workings don't need help of this kind. And what were the trombones doing at the cadence? Their final blazing fortissimo chord was delivered at a pale mezzo-forte and let the coda down most surprisingly.

Much of the rest of the interpretation seemed decent but run-of-the- mill, and certainly not what might have been expected after the superb Schoenberg. In truth, Brahms's Violin Concerto, which opened the concert, did not augur that well, since the greatly gifted soloist Vadim Repin substituted a worthy gravity for genuine fire and found a similar response in his accompanists.

Five Orchestral Pieces, however, was truly splendid. This extraordinary music still retains its ability to shock 90 years after its composition, and also to bewilder, judging by a number of stony faces near me during the generally warm and richly deserved applause at the close. The main reason for listeners' difficulties was made all the more obvious in Chailly's wonderfully clear unfolding of Schoenberg's invention. We are bemused at the outset because the composer plunges us immediately into the heart of a complex development, or so it seems, without the benefit of being introduced to the musical material in a more leisurely style through classical exposition. Almost before we can grasp the topics under heated discussion, the debate is over, and much the same happens in the fourth piece.

But in an age that - through cinema, TV and technology - is growing used to taking in massive amounts of information at high speed, Schoenberg may at last be coming into his own. And for those who still like to have their musical arguments progress at a slower pace, the second and third movements generate a sensuous beauty that enchants the ear.

All this was shaped and coloured with exquisite clarity and understanding by Chailly and his superb players, and I was grateful for what could still perhaps be viewed, after all this time, as a brave piece of programming.

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