MUSIC / Arm's length principle: Review: David Fanning on the Halle Orchestra

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A note here, a note there, the music of a madman.' Thus Webern describing his own music, in exasperation at an uncomprehending performance. He would surely not have said that of the Halle's meticulously crafted account of the Op 10 Orchestral Pieces, with which Kent Nagano opened their first concert of the new year. And yet . . . These are among Webern's wispiest, most fragile inventions. They are true chamber orchestra miniatures. And as all chamber music they are surely best heard close up with a small, passionately interested audience. In the wide vistas of the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, much of the musicians' sensitive input went for


Successful or not, such programming reflects Nagano's attempt to freshen the experience of concert-going with the Halle. Concert-giving, too, for the idea is also to foster a spirit of chamber music-making and individual initiative within the orchestra. To have Viktoria Mullova perform the Bach Chaconne as a kind of formal encore after the Berg Concerto was no doubt part of the same policy and, perhaps coincidentally, a throwback to the days when soloists would perform such items (or more likely a flashy pot-pourri of some kind) as a matter of course.

Mullova's Bach was scrupulously clean of delivery, rhythmically well-sprung, stylistically aware, yet curiously soulless and lacking in inner animation. So too her Berg. Flowing in tempo, suave in texture, not insensitive to the Viennese lilt when the score explicitly demands it, the playing was nevertheless always emotionally at arm's length, apparently oblivious to the heartbreak behind the notes. Nor could it justifiably be called stylistically aware, given the ample evidence of Berg's (and indeed his friend Webern's) more rhapsodic approach to performance.

In many ways the highlight of the concerto was Nagano's attention to matters of balance. Within the orchestra, lines stood in carefully sculpted relief, and the whole texture had a lightness and transparency which could hardly have been more sympathetic to the soloist. The danger with this approach, however, is of emotional emasculation, and this loomed more than once in the passionate upwellings of Berg's second movement. It did so again in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony after the


Nagano has come to the Halle with a world-class reputation in colourful late-Romantic and 20th century repertoire. On the other hand some of the very best things he has done with the orchestra have been in Haydn and Schubert. But his undoubted gift for moulding, almost coiffuring the sound, pays fewer dividends in Beethoven, where incandescence and authority are all.

On this occasion the opening bars were ragged and the whole first movement hung fire; wonderful hushed moments in the slow movement did not always ring structurally true, and the main idea of the scherzo had a tinge of self-consciousness. Still, the unity of purpose in the finale showed that the door is still open to great Beethoven experiences from this orchestra and conductor in the future.

(Photograph omitted)