Saturday, 1 December 2007

BANG, BANG!

Sing the characters in Sondheim's gem of a musical Marry me a Little. They're talking about sex, of course, but they could just as easily have been describing the pianism of Polina Leschenko. The former is preferable.

The concert, on Thursday 8th November, was an interesting one for me. The views of the Scottish press of the SCO's former chief conductor, Joseph Swensen are favourable, as is my impression from the one or two CDs I have heard, so I was curious to hear him in action. The start was not promising. They played a little known piece by Puccini called I Crisantemi. The programme describes it as a string quartet. However, since there were rather more than four players on the platform, one must assume some orchestration had gone on, but Svend Brown's programme note provided no illumination. Neither, for the most part did the piece which, while there was some nice enough playing, seemed justly obscure.

This was followed by the Chopin piano concerto. Or, rather, a brief pause as the chairs were moved about, during which the cellos decamped to the side stalls and chatted with one or two members of the audience. As the piano was moved closer, it occurred to me that the front row, while ideal in the Queen's Hall for chamber concerts, might yield less that ideal balance here. That was the least of my concerns. Leschensko is a thumper. No subtlety, but every note banged out. This may be to some tastes, but not mine and as a result the experience was fairly unbearable. Swensen's accompaniment was better, though he seemed to follow the example set by Fischer in mistakenly equating loudness with excitement.

The second half was an improvement: Schumann's 1st (spring) symphony. Swensen gave a dramatic and exciting reading, in many ways everything the concerto hadn't been. The playing was much sharper too. However, the middle movements were somewhat rushed, but perhaps that comes of being used to Bernstein's later recordings. He could have offered more contrast, both in tempo and more importantly in volume which was, most of the time, far, far too loud. Like many of the SCO's conductors this season, he seems to cope poorly with larger works in the small hall.

Swensen seemed to have garnered much enthusiastic praise for his years as the SCO's music director, but I have to say I wasn't blown away. A slightly odd conductor to watch, with a very angular style of movement, almost like a marionette at times and annoyingly reminiscent of Michael Tilson Thomas. To be sure, his (or indeed, any) guiding touch is missing from an orchestra that has had no music director since he left, but once again it is a disappointment that an orchestra with players of this calibre does not seem to attract conductors of the same level.


Two weeks later, and history was repeating itself. This time the conductor of the day was Diego Masson. Who? You might well ask. Well, you haven't missed much. He opened with Rossini's overture: The Silken Ladder. The orchestra's playing was not particularly sharp and there were rather too many fluffed notes (from the winds and horns particularly). His reading was not really light or playful as Rossini should be.

Then came Piotr Anderszewski to play Mozart's 21st Concerto (it was to have been the Schumann concerto, but having never performed it before he got cold feet at the last minute, in truth the substitution was a merciful one as the Mozart is briefer). Bang, bang! Again, from the first piano notes it was all downhill. Not only did he thump like anything, but there wasn't even any passion behind it, a performance that was horribly matter of fact in the way the notes followed one another. Overly romantic, for Mozart, and with conductor and soloist seeming not to be playing quite the same reading. The beautiful slow movement lacked any poetry. To make matters worse Anderszewski revealed an extremely annoying grunting, groaning, almost moaning, singing mannerism. The finale too was deeply unimpressive. One to be avoided, it is with horror, therefore, that I notice I have him again later in the season. One lesson seems to leap from this: the season ticket, which seemed a nice idea at the time, was a hideous mistake.

In the second half he brought us Stravinsky's Concerto in D. It was a competent reading, but devoid of the kind of electricity that Stravinsky really needs to shine. This was followed by Haydn's 88th symphony. Masson played too loudly and a reading that, like Fischer's Beethoven, felt a little rough around the edges. It lacked the sparkle, joy, humour and, well, anything that marks out great Haydn, stodgy and overly intellectual instead. So, if Masson is unknown to you, there is no hurry to rectify this (if rectify can indeed be said to be the correct term).

Sometime I feel we need a society to campaign against thumping pianists, to champion the likes of Kempff or Uchida. But even Paul Lewis, who plays the Hammerklavier with as much force and passion as I've heard, but who is capable of getting volume without thumping, a skill that is apparently beyond the reach of messrs Anderszewski and Leschenko. Pitty. Will the SCO please start engaging pianists who do not thump! It is, I suppose, some comfort that in a few months time the sublime Christian Zacharias will be paying a visit (if he was willing, and the orchestra had the sense, they would engage him as their music director).

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