Exuberance and poetry from pianist and conductor Lars Vogt with the NZSO

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents:

BEETHOVEN – Overture “The Creatures of Prometheus) Op.43
MOZART – Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K.467
WEBERN (orch. Gerard Schwarz) Langsamer Satz
MOZART – Symphony No. 36 in C “Linz”

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 26th October, 2018

Review for “Upbeat” RNZ Concert (with David Morriss)
Monday 29th October 2018

There’s always great interest whenever somebody decides to take on the dual role of soloist and conductor in the performance of music – we had Freddy Kempf here with the NZSO a few years ago playing the entire cycle of Beethoven Piano Concertos, for example, which, from all accounts , was a great success. And now, with even more historical precedent in the case of Mozart’s Piano Concertos, here was Lars Vogt demonstrating his skills in that respect with one of the most famous of all Mozart’s concertos, popularly known as the “Elvira Madigan” concerto, due to its use in a 1970s Swedish film of the same name. How did his playing and conducting of the concerto come across for you?

He is obviously a brilliant pianist and, on this showing, a talented and exciting conductor. In fact I found more interest in what the orchestra was doing under his direction than I did with what he was doing at the keyboard – his playing was predictably brilliant, but at times I thought the passage-work became a bit mechanical – he would ever-so-slightly race the figurations faster than I wanted them to go, giving the music in places a “machine-like” quality, I wanted him to “savour” the music more, and allow it a bit more light and shade.

Of course other people will have “heard” the music somewhat differently – simply where one is sitting in the hall makes a tremendous difference to how one “hears” the music, and the microphones placed over the top of the orchestra will pick up a different kind of “quality of sound with anything we play to that which I heard on Friday evening. I thought, for instance, that from where I was sitting the violins seemed to be dominated by, even sound underpowered next to the wind and brass instruments in tutti – but others could well feel different, depending on where they were sitting. Music, as we know, evokes very subjective responses, and it would be a very boring world if we as listeners all felt the same way about everything we heard.

The slow movement we’ve just heard part of had a silken, light-as-a-feather quality throughout, but with plenty of variety in the exchange of phrasings between piano and orchestra. The only thing was that, at this tempo it was all over so quickly! – It came across as more divertimento-like than as a serenade, beautifully done though it was.

All-in-all, do you think he was able to successfully combine the functions of both soloist and conductor in this performance? We know that Mozart did this – conduct his own concertos from the keyboard – and most successfully, by all counts. 

I find myself wondering whether these people who direct from the keyboard need to be so demonstrative in their direction of the players. I was speaking to someone from the orchestra who had played in the Freddy Kempf performances of the Beethoven concerti shortly after, and I remember this person saying that they wished Kempf had simply sat still and directed the players from the keyboard and not jumped up and down from his seat all the time. I imagine it varies from musician to musician what they feel is necessary to do to achieve control when conducting, but I still found it distracting, as I did Kempff’s movements.

I wondered whether there was an element of anxiety in Vogt’s playing, wanting to get to the next orchestral entry to bring the players in, or trying to keep an “edge” to the overall performance. The playing in the slow movement we’ve just heard was lovely – but for me, the finale was the most successful movement, because it had an overall “bubbling exuberance” spirit from everybody that was extremely well-captured, as was a slightly more wistful sequence in the music’s alternate minor-key sequence from the opening

Also in the concert there was a real rarity – an early work by Anton Webern which I’m sure most people on hearing would never associate with the actual composer! Rather like a piece of early Schoenberg, do you think?

This was Webern’s single-movement work “Langsamer Satz”, which I thought was a beautiful piece! I found myself thinking, “How could this have been written by Webern?” – because it was so romantic-sounding, which is the antithesis of what most of the music by Webern I’ve heard sounds like! I thought this piece had the makings of some kind of modern classic, like Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht, or Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

Of course Webern’s original, written in 1905, was for string quartet (Webern himself never heard the work, incidentally). It was the only movement he completed of a planned string quartet, and was lost for well-nigh 60 years.  After being rediscovered and played, the piece came to the attention of American conductor and composer Gerard Schwarz, who thought it would sound more effective if transcribed for string orchestra, with a bass part added. This was done and first performed in 1982.

Concluding the concert was Mozart’s “Linz Symphony  – one of a trio of Symphonies named after cities the work had a particular association with – the “Paris”, the “Linz” and the “Prague”. Mozart was supposed to have composed this work in four days – does it sound like a “rush job to you?

Not even slightly – of course Mozart was renowned for his ability to put things together inside his head before they’d even been committed to paper – and this symphony seems as though it almost “wrote itself” in that respect – he must have been truly inspired by his surroundings or put in a frame of mind that gave his imagination full reign, because the work has a wonderful “spontaneous” quality right throughout. The only detail in the playing I found difficulty in “placing” in an overall sense was the conductor’s somewhat abrupt way with the opening chords, before the music relaxed in the quieter sections which followed. I found it hard to marry the two sections together, because the music has always seemed to me to continue in the same rhythmic vein, albeit muscular and arresting at the beginning and suspenseful and charged in the subsequent passages. I thought it could have all been done in one tempo. Apart from this, I thought the overall conception of the movement beautifully brought out the music’s different characters in a flowing and unified way.

The name “Linz” (after the city of Linz) suggests something with a certain “public ” character, as if drawing attention to the characteristics of a city as a whole, something, of course representative of a great number of people, something easily identifiable with a place’s particular set of characteristics.

Yes, you’re right – it seems to be a very “public” statement, doesn’t it, especially compared with other symphonic works like the two G Minor symphonies. The very opening is a “call to attention”, with a kind of rumbustiousness that follows, driving the music forward, the second movement is dance-like rather than ruminative and deep, and the third movement – well, the third movement is an out-and-out invitation for people to kick off their shoes and join in the Minuet. It was so infectiously played, here, that in the trio section, one could almost imagine the dancers’ impatience to get back to the dance when the Minuet finally returned!

There used to be a famous rehearsal recording of this symphony available, one conducted by the great Bruno Walter in the 1950s – 1955 I think….. It illustrates how much Mozart interpretation has changed over the years, as you can hear if you own Walter, Klemperer or Karl Bohm recordings of these works – and yet Mozart remains the same spirit in the hands of each conductor.

I was sitting close to John Button, the DomPost critic, and asked him at halftime whether he remembered the Walter rehearsal recording – he immediately said, “Yes, especially Mr Bloom, the oboe player!” Walter talks a lot with “Mr Bloom”, the oboist in the orchestra, whose name was hereby captured for all time on these records! I believe this recording was from 1955, which is pretty old, now – and yet the chance to hear a famous conductor painstakingly rehearse a work that he knows and loves is one I wouldn’t think anybody interested in music and music interpretation would want to miss.

What would you say unites those different styles of playing so that you could say – yes, it still sounds like Mozart? What did you hear on Friday evening that bore a relationship to those older performances we know?

Well, after the somewhat abrupt start, with those assertive, swiftly-played chords I’ve already mentioned, I thought the playing and conducting brought out a sense of “line” that I hear on those older recordings – and that was what I think gave Lars Vogt’s conducting of the symphony such overall strength. It was a consistency – a kind of “connective tissue” – which I felt was made up of things such as the feeling of the players being encouraged to “own” their musical phrases, so that this sense of “caring” about the music was constantly being presented to us  – that’s what I mean by “line” not everything played legato, or anything like that, but, as I’ve said, a consistency.

The other prevailing sense for me was Vogt’s bringing out the music’s character – and I felt this was better, more strongly achieved in the symphony than in the concerto because the conductor was free to conduct and “focus” the music’s on-going consistencies, generating a truly infectious exuberance and not just note-spinning, which I thought parts of the concerto weren’t entirely free from. Again, there are parallels with an older style of music-making, the best of the modern performances just as concerned with the music’s overall feeling as with some kind of so-called “authentic” way of playing it. This came to full fruition, I think, in the symphony’s finale, which seemed to engage every player and bring out the music’s essential joyfulness.


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