It was Semyon Bychkov’s last concert as principal conductor of the WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne, and reaching the summit of Strauss’ Alpine Symphony could and should have been a big deal – the Albert Hall is a natural environment for this musical blockbuster.
But some concerts – and this was one of them – just don’t aspire to such lofty heights. It was easy to recognise but hard to define why.
First impressions of Viviane Hagner in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto were well founded. The opening was simply too genteel, too polite, to be considered – by any stretch of the imagination – molto appassionato. Indeed the whole of the concerto’s opening paragraph failed to ignite in any coherent way. Hagner played the notes well enough but the imperative of the piece, the undercurrent of romantic ardour, was nowhere. Her slow movement was more interesting for its songfulness in flowing waltz time and the air of decorum and formality did start to slip with the capriciousness of the finale. But too little, too late. And strangely old-fashioned.
You might say the same of Gunther Schuller’s hefty but inconsequential orchestral piece Where the World Ends. So last century, I wryly thought, as its proliferation of chirruping string voices strove to emulate much the same effect as Stravinsky achieved with winds at the start of The Rite of Spring. Here was another pagan invocation of sorts, technically accomplished and, but for the extensive featuring of Wagner tubas, strenuously second-hand. In the final page or two of music one bar broke into a big-band swing as if fleetingly to remind us of Schuller’s jazz interests. A frame of Ellington’s Harlem flashed in my head. Now there’s a piece.
Perhaps it was a mistake to steal Strauss’ thunder by pre-empting it with another big orchestral showpiece but Alpine Symphony made far less impact than it should have done beyond a competent exposition of its pictorial effects. It was a little like experiencing the DVD rather than the big screen theatre presentation. The brass playing in particular was way too safe, horns never quite achieving that extra reach in the climactic summit episode, high-stopped trumpets getting the notes but not the sheer visceral thrill of them. The spirit did not move in this performance and even as the last violin glissando slipped away that intangible sense of achievement felt closer to exhaustion.