Antwerp, Belgium : 11 May 2007
This was a much anticipated concert. For almost a year, the prospect of hearing well known authentic performance specialist Philippe Herreweghe lead his Royal Flemish Orchestra in one of Raff's finest symphonies, his Symphony No.8 Frühlingsklänge, was a mouth watering one. So learning only a couple of months beforehand that Herreweghe had substituted the Fourth Symphony was a blow. There's nothing wrong with that work, in fact it's one of Raff's most rounded creations, but the Eighth is an altogether bigger piece and one which excites more. But one must put such disappointments behind one; any Raff symphony concert is still not to be sneezed at.
Antwerp is a fine old Flemish city, with its fair share of magnificent historic buildings. Unfortunately its concert hall, the Elisabethzaal, isn't one of them. Its apologetic entrance, squeezed next to the city's zoo and its glorious belle epoque railway station, sets the tone. Inside it's a gloomy post-war space. The Antwerpers were out in force for the evening with a near capacity audience, attracted no doubt by the prospect of hearing Germany's current pianist wunderkind, Lars Vogt, play Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto in the second half.
The opening piece was another audience pleaser: Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture. Oh dear. What a limp, lack lustre affair it proved to be. The opening, in which Mendelssohn conjures up the craggy cliffs of Fingal's Cave emerging from the sea mist, was played without an iota of atmosphere and it set the tone for the rest of the work. The hall's odd acoustic, which tends to flatten dynamic contrasts to a constant mezzo forte, didn't help, but there was an almost total absence of drama or, indeed, of feeling of any sort about this performance. It was played competently enough but then, as a staple of the repertoire, so it should be. A dispiriting start.
Raff's Fourth, which completed the first half, showed from the beginning more signs that Herreweghe had given his interpretation some thought. The opening of the Allegro displayed a proper mix of solemnity and suppressed joie de vivre and was taken at an appropriately sprightly pace. Making allowances for the Elizabethzaal's deadening sound, this wasn't too bad. One's hopes rose. Unfortunately about a third of the way in, where Raff launches into a contrapuntal development section, conductor and orchestra seemed to part company for a few agonising seconds which sounded more like Schoenberg than Raff. Once order was restored the rest of the movement carried on to its golden conclusion safely enough, although there was the odd bit of scrappy playing here and there from the strings in particular. Something had been lost, though, and that was confidence in the music itself. For the rest of the performance conductor and orchestra seemed to play safe.
The second movement Scherzo flitted by very attractively, with Herreweghe getting the most out of the artful transitions between the outer sections and the Trio. His wind players in particular acquitted themselves with distinction. Both here and in the beautifully lyrical slow movement, the Royal Flemish Orchestra seemed better rehearsed. That said, whilst the Andante was certainly lusciously tuneful, Herreweghe didn't seem to be able to bring out the underlying pent-up passion which is there, and so the feeling of release at the movement's close was missing too.
The closing Allegro was taken at a very fast tempo, arguably too fast for some in the orchestra. As with the second part of the first movement, the playing here was scrappy from time to time and once again Herreweghe's interpretation didn't seem to do more than deliver the notes. Although this finale is basically celebratory in character, there's a lot more to it than just simple jollity and none of that was apparent here. For example, the pause just before the end, where Raff recalls the opening them of the work, was glossed over with barely a slackening of the pace. If you didn't know it was there, you'd have missed it. Although Herreweghe and his players were more involved in the Raff than in the Mendelssohn (if only because of unfamiliarity), the results weren't any more satisfying to anyone who knew Raff's Symphony. The audience, who were no doubt entirely ignorant of it, applauded the performance enthusiastically nonetheless.
The second half was given over to Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, in which Lars Vogt was the soloist. Whether in misplaced deference to Herreweghe's enthusiasm for authentic performance, or on some odd whim of his own, Vogt's decision to place the piano in the centre of the orchestra facing the audience, was a mistake. The reduction in the instrument's volume which resulted, coupled with the hall's odd acoustic, threatened to turn this into a "music minus one" performance at times. Added to which, live music making has a visual element too. When all the audience can see is the top of the soloist's head, much of its connection with him as protagonist is lost. Putting those aspects of the performance to one side, though, its execution was the most satisfying of the night with the orchestra secure, Vogt by turns heroic and lyrical and Herreweghe directing the tutti with something approaching panache.
The good folk of Antwerp applauded loud and long and seemed to be happy with their night out. In truth they deserved better, and so did Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Raff. What a wasted opportunity.
[For another view of this concert, see Ilja Nieuwland's review (in Dutch) at 8weekly.nl]