(Sir John Eliot Gardiner)

Chetena Nagavajara

Berlin, 21 September 2014

I have always questioned the wisdom of the saying attributed to Gustave Mahler: “There are no bad orchestras, only bad conductors.” I had heard the London Symphony Orchestra several times before its concert in Berlin on 14 September 2014. It only once impressed me, and that was its visit to Bangkok under the then Assistant Conductor, Ivan Fischer, on 26 May 1983. They played in the Thai-Japanese Indoor Stadium at Din Daeng Road, not really an ideal place for a symphony concert, but everything went very well. Even when a heavy rain started falling during the performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, Ivan Fischer stopped the orchestra only for a few seconds. After realizing that nothing could be done against Mother Nature, he went on. And the concert was an unqualified success. The other concerts I heard in London were a conducted by big names, such as Bernard Haitink, Kent Nagano and Valery Gergiev. Under the latter two, the London Symphony barely scraped through.


(London Symphony Orchestra)

To me the London Symphony Orchestra that performed in the Philharmonie as part of the Berlin Music Festival was almost in every way a different orchestra from the one I had heard in London. How did the miracle happen? I shall have to find ways to explain this phenomenon. But first, let me tell you what struck the Berlin audience in visual terms: the strings (except the celli and the double basses) stood up to perform. They rose to the occasion, so to speak. (I am writing my review, not chronologically, but am dealing with the London Symphony Orchestra after having heard 7 orchestras altogether). If this were a competition, I would never hesitate to give the First Prize to the London Symphony, because it was the most musical, most sensitive, and most emotionally profound of all the orchestras, although technically, not all the sections are equally strong like the Gewandhaus of Leipzig. Could an orchestra change overnight? I already hinted at the role of the conductor in connection with its visit to Bangkok as far back at 1983, and I shall have to be blunt and straightforward: John Eliot Gardiner is perhaps the best conductor around in the Western world after the death of Claudio Abbado.

He was an amateur working with Monteverdi while a student at Cambridge, where he was reading Arabic (sic)! An amateur, etymologically speaking, is one who loves. He later turned professional after having taken up musical studies seriously in London and Paris. One of the pioneers of the research into Baroque music and later of music of the Romantic period, he knows how to put into practice what research has delivered. For this purpose, he founded new orchestras, notably the English Baroque Soloists and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. These are not permanent orchestras, but ensembles that recruit the best possible musicians available for specific engagements. In this respect, guest-conducting, to Gardiner, can be of quality comparable or superior to permanent appointment with a specific orchestra. But appointments he has held, also in France and in Germany. Such experience is rare, and it is different from his jet-setting colleagues, for Gardiner has a strong sense of mission. Who else would have sustained, for example, the “Bach Cantata Pilgrimage”, a series of Bach performances in churches around Europe and the United States lasting one whole year. The Berlin visit was part of a European tour. I suspect he wanted to prove something to himself, to his colleagues, to his multinational audience and to the LSO itself that “he can do it!”

I like picking out something small in order to explain larger issues. At the end of the Berlin concert, the applause would not stop, and Gardiner and the LSO decided to give an encore. It was a gem of classical music which was performed with playfulness and conviction at the same time, the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream with a flute solo, played by principal flautist, Gareth Davies. It is a piece to demonstrate the virtuosity of the orchestra and of the flute soloist, and anybody who had heard the solo flautist of the Cleveland Orchestra, Joshua Smith, in the piece, Flûte en suite, on 11 September 2014, would readily agree that the two flautists were of the comparable level. Even in an “incidental music” like this piece by Mendelssohn, the LSO could reach such great musical heights. Let’s turn to the main programme.

The evening started with the Concert Overture, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, by Mendelssohn, based on two poems by Goethe. Audiences of today probably may not understand that in those days of sailing ships, calm sea was not to be taken positively. So in this “programme music”, Mendelssohn decides to treat the theme of “calm sea” only briefly. The music is meant to reflect the natural condition as well as the worry on the part of the skipper, as explicitly expressed in Goethe’s poem. This is a fairly dauting task for the composer, and Mendelssohn opts for the middle road: the music is neither a celebration of nature nor a direct expression of disquietude. The use of the brooding lower strings is very suggestive, while the higher strings carry the surface structure of the “calm sea”. But when the wind rises, the shrieking woodwinds welcome it, and this longer second part of the overture contains exciting moments, terminating in a joyous fanfare greeting the ship’s arrival in the harbour. It is a piece that is full of contrasts as well as nuances, and the orchestra responded to this challenge with the kind of music-making that one could enjoy both hearing and seeing. The standing musicians, (fewer than in a present-day symphony orchestra) especially, were full of enthusiasm that was never marred by being too exhibitionistic. They were virtuosi who knew how far freedom should go and how far they had to discipline themselves. This was orchestral playing at its most exemplary. Of course, the conductor was meticulous: his beats were clear and meaningful, and most of the time, the communication with the orchestra was through his eyes (although he is short-sighted and has to wear spectacles!)  I cannot imagine how the Berlin Philharmonic could play under Karajan who – as part of his usual histrionics – closed his eyes while conducting so as to give the impression of being fully absorbed by the music. As for the LSO, I thought this short overture lasting only 10 minutes already confirmed the perfect rapport between the orchestra and the conductor. I could sense that the musicians were enjoying their (temporary) freedom from the routine work under their permanent conductor, Valery Gergiev. Although it is known that Gardiner can sometimes be rude to musicians, it seems that they are prepared to work for him, for in the world of PR and self-aggrandizement, a conductor of this calibre is difficult to come by.

This Berlin Music Festival has been a feast for the horns: natural horn, horn with valves, post horn and what have you. And the culmination came with Schumann’s Concertpiece for Four Horns and Orchestra, written in 1849 and premiered in Leipzig in 1850. I have put the dates down here with a specific purpose. Here Schumann awoke to the new possibilities offered by the innovative horn with valves. As late as 1865 when Brahms composed the heavenly Horn Trio, he insisted on having it played on the natural horn (with no valves), affirming his judgment that the new invention did not bring about improvement in the tonal beauty of the instrument. As for Schumann, his open-mindedness and enthusiasm for innovation was such that he wrote a work for 4 horns, itself an innovation too. The visiting British orchestra was thinking of honouring the host, and instead of having all four British soloists, it was decided to invite a German (freelance) hornist, Radovan Vlatković, to lead the group. I am not sure how much time the four soloists had for rehearsing together, for although they were individually brilliant, they were not always together in the actual performance, and the first horn was unmistakably the one who occasionally was the odd man out.

But I should not be picking faults. The performance on the whole was spirited, and there could not be any doubt that the genius of the composer was brought to the fore by these virtuosi. I think Schumann was too modest by not calling this work a “concerto”. The three- movement structure is there, and each movement has a character of its own. The performers are expected to be able to make judicious differentiations too. It is an exciting work, from the very first two chords in the orchestra, introducing the solo horns that have to make their entry without further ado. There are some lovely melodies, not only for the solo instruments, but for the orchestra as well. John Elliot Gardiner and the LSO seemed to be urging the soloists to give their best, the orchestral parts being more than just an accompaniment. The slow movement contains long sustained passages that demand a great deal from the hornists, as they had to execute those most trying passages of their own, blend with the other soloists and converse with the orchestra. Balance is the key word, and it was achieved by all. I particularly like the last movement, marked in German as “sehr lebhaft” (very lively). And lively it was: the score demanded it, with those challenging appergios, certainly to test the potential of the newly improved (Brahms would not say so, though!) instruments with valves, and also to test the technical prowess of the players.

Of course, the soloists in Berlin passed the test with flying colours. If you want to know how technically difficult this piece is, go to YOUTUBE and listen to some of the performances, and you will soon realize that not all solo hornists can play it! Schumann must have been an extraordinary man: how hid he move from exploring the potential and power of an instrument to composing a work that is so musical beyond any description. Yehudi Menuhin once remarked, when invited to go to Leipzig to perform (at the time when the country was still called the “German Democratic Republic”) that he was going on a “pilgrimage”. So much great music arose in so short a time in the early and mid-19th century in the city of Leipzig.

The idea of composing music to celebrate an important occasion is nothing unusual, but to impose upon oneself, as Mendelssohn does, to celebrate a religious reform with music is a difficult task. Mendelssohn, though originally hailed from a Jewish family, grew up as a fervent Protestant, and on the occasion of the tercennial of the Augsburg Confession in 1530 (when Luther reasserted to the Emperor Charles V that all his actions were inspired by none other than the Lord), he, a young composer of 21 years old, wanted to contribute a work to the celebration. Unfortunately, it was not finished in time. Yet, he was ready to have it performed. Leipzig and Munich were not cooperative, but when he went to Paris in 1832, the conductor François Habeneck gave it a trial. The orchestra, however, found it to be too learned and especially too “contrapuntal”. Let us not forget that none other than Franz Liszt maintained that “if you want to hear Beethoven well played, you have to go to Paris”. (That was not long after Beethoven’s death.) Mendelssohn was disappointed, and finally got the revised work performed in Berlin in late 1832 under his own direction. He was never satisfied with the symphony and did not want to have it published during his lifetime.

The point about this symphony being too contrapuntal is worth a little digression. Counterpoint is mostly associated with the music of Bach, which Mendelssohn revived and performed in his own way, which may be different from the fruits of the “historical” school, to which John Eliot Gardiner belongs. The famous British conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, disliked Bach and branded the latter’s music as “Protestant counterpoint”. British scholars and performers since the 20th century have been successful in demonstrating that this Protestant counterpoint did go to produce great music that can still be enjoyed today. Mendelssohn’s naturally considers himself a descendent of Bach and relishes that Protestant counterpoint. The final movement is contrapuntal through and through, and the way the LSO under John Eliot Gardian performed it convinced me that under the hands of sympathetic experts, counterpoint is something one can enjoy. We Thai have no problems with that, as the musicians in a Thai classical orchestra have their individual (partly improvised) “paths” that are even more complex than Western counterpoint.

The symphonic form that Mendelssohn chooses for the work means that it is not conceived entirely as a festive piece, since a symphony with its four movements must contain a variety of forms and emotions. The two inner movements, Allegro vivace and Andante, cannot be made to represent the self-assertion of the “Reformers”. It was a delight to hear and to watch the LSO play the second movement, especially those standing string players, swaying a little to punctuate the “vivacoius” movement of the music, exploiting to the full their virtuosity to demonstrate that this music has life and is life. The slow movement can be accepted in its own terms: Romantic music which never will end up in any paroxism, containing some exquisite dialogues between the strings and woodwinds, especially the flutes. But the timpani at the end of the movement announces the coming of a historic spiritual upheaval. It is worth noticing that the final movement, which is clearly associated with the “programme” that Mendelssohn has adopted, begins with a flute solo. (Martin Luther himself was very musical and also played the flute.) The movement avowedly wishes to celebrate the triumph of the Reformation. Mendelssohn quotes Luther’s chorale “Ein feste Burg is unser Gott” (A mighty Fortress Is Our God), and elaborates on it in a way that lends the movement a great dynamic without ever lapsing into pomposity. In this sense, the first movement too tries to reflect the personality of Martin Luther, a man of immense courage, who dared to confront the Emperor with his profession of faith and got away with it. There Mendelssohn quotes the “Dresden Amen” which was adopted by both the Catholic and the Protestant Churches. Naturally, the first movement harks back to Beethoven, especially the defiant Beethoven who believes in the potential of man to rise to great virtues (as exemplified in the last movement of his Symphony No. 9). This is as much as music can do to tell the story of the rise of a religious movement that has changed parts of the Western world for good. As I have said before, music, and especially instrumental music, can only be suggestive.

John Eliot Gardiner has done a great service in bringing the London Symphony Orchestra back to life. The learned man of Western music happens also to be a very succinct practitioner as well. In very simple terms, he knows what music can do and cannot do. No extra histrionics on the rostrum would add anything. The performance of the London Symphony Orchestra on 14 September 2014 was very musical. The musicians may have lost that quality under the hands of jet-setting showmen, and they stunned the Berlin audience with their musicality. When Sir Thomas Beecham had the temerity to bring a British orchestra to play in Berlin in the 1920’s in order to prove that England was not “the land without music”, it was well received, but perhaps, not in a rapturous way as with the London Symphony this time. The guest conductor knows Germany well and knows only too well that to win the heart of this Teutonic musical nation, you have to be very, very musical. He has proved the dictum of Gustav Mahler: “There are no bad orchestras, only bad conductors”. What will happen to the London Symphony Orchestra after this European tour. I shudder to think of it. It’s none of my business. I hail from the “land of smiles” which is trying its best to recover from being a “failed state”. Mind you, even the chief of the junta is a music lover and composed the lyric for a song calling for the revival of national unity! But that is a different story.