Thursday 18 December 2008

There was going to be Runnicles

As I mentioned at the end of my last review, one of the highlights of my concert going season, and certainly the London Symphony Orchestra's, looked set to be Donald Runnicles' appearance on 25th January for Strauss's Four Last Songs with Christine Brewer, his Tod Und Verklärung and the unfinished adagio of Mahler's 10th symphony.

Sadly it is not to be, I received the following e-mail on Tuesday:

I am writing to let you know that this performance will now be conducted by Leif Segerstam, as Donald Runnicles has decided to withdraw from the concert due to family reasons. The programme will remain unchanged.

We sincerely hope that the family reasons are not too serious, and that everyone is well in the Runnicles household.

Bad enough, however, that we won't be getting Runnicles, but I could bear it if his replacement wasn't so dire. I have asked for a refund and will be investigating other options for my trip south (the Philharmonia has Benjamin Grosvenor playing the Grieg piano concerto).

Why the ire against Segerstam? He's on my blacklist after his performance of Sibelius's 5th, 6th and 7th symphonies with the BBC Scottish Symphony a couple of years ago. It thus seems as good a time as any to reprint my review which predated this blog (originally published on the Naim forum on 1st December 2006).

Well, last night saw the finale of the series that sparked this thread. What a shame it was not the valedictory that might have been hoped for.

Conductor Leif Segerstam was on duty for symphonies 5, 6 and 7. Things did not start especially well: there was something about the opening of the 5th that wasn't right, but on which I struggled to put my finger. Certainly it was painfully slow, running around forty minutes. This is fine enough if you are Leonard Bernstein and can conjour the unique sonic pictures he manages with the VPO. Segerstam couldn't. It also seems he is certainly his pupil (Solyom)'s teacher, in that his sense of orchestral balance is very poor. This was particularly true of the wonderful theme on the strings in the closing bars which was completely washed out. Similarly to his pupil, he also seems to equate volume with drama (indeed, at places in the 7th it was painfully loud). The second movement suffered from similar problems and more - the big themes didn't really ever seem to emerge at all; there was no sweep or flow at all. Indeed, he seemed not to quite be in control of things, not least in the way he jerked through the transition into the finale, which suffered horribly from 'Mahler 9 syndrome' (namely the way in which that work can, in the wrong hands, seem horribly like a series of disjointed minatures - I would never imagined it possible to do this to Sibelius). He built no tension, no themes. The final chords utterly underwhelmed. Still, the audience by and large seem to disagree (and I once again wonder if having heard so many fine readings on disc makes it impossible to enjoy lukewarm performances).

However, the 6th was some way below lukewarm. Balance was, if anything, more of an issue (the more subtle moments were not allowed through). This was compounded by extraordinary sloth, again running in at close to forty minutes. Both the first and second movements ended in an almost comical manner, in a kind of 'you're kidding, that surely wasn't the last chord' way. In some bad readings, at least one now and again gets the wonderful Sibelian themes and thinks, this is more like it. But Segerstam never allowed them to emerge. The big themes were fumbled terribly. There was no bite or tension to what should be the exciting vivace of the third movement, which ended with the most bizzare climax coming deafeningly out of nowhere. In the 4th movement it became clear to me that his problem was rather more profound than a poor sense of orchestral balance: he had a total lack or orchestral control. The big climaxes in this movement should not sound like a cacophony in this sort of a way. The beauty of the movement's opening was utterly lost.

However, it was the 7th that was possibly the most disappointing of all, perhaps because I have fond memories of a wonderful concert from Oramo and the CBSO. The opening bars displayed some of the poorest orchestral playing I have heard in some years. The various instruments were all over the place. In fairness to them, they recovered slightly in the next few minutes and, for a moment, I wondered if this would turn out to be the evening's highlight. It did not. When the trombones first entered there was something awfully funny in the balance within the section. The faster moments (though this is a rather relative term as there was not nearly enough contrast in tempi) did not work at all. Again it suffered horribly from Mahler 9 issues and the cacophony of the 6th. The sense of journey's end towards the close was utterly absent. The lack of balance was debilitating - towards the end the strings drowned the trombones utterly (and the music was painfully loud). There textures were awful too - there is a string theme that has a wonderful 'icy wind' feel in the best readings, in Segerstam's hands it sounded like rather dull scales played badly. When he paused it was worse - comically bad even, there seemed no reason to it (other, perhaps, than to further butcher the music). The final chords had little impact (though the audience seemed rather to have enjoyed this one too).

Segerstam conducts in an oddly lacklustre way. Indeed, one wonders if he is past it, but a quick google shows him barely over 60. Perhaps it's his weight, but the energy with which Mackerras (some 20 years his elder) strides to the podium and then conducts rather puts him to shame. Segerstam merely waddles there and one almost wonders if he will be able to climb onto the podium. His gestures hardly change at all with the music and he never seems to direct the players. Not a huge matter mind, since they never seem to be paying him the slightest bit of attention. In a way it makes me appreciate Solyom more, he may have lacked the nuance of balance, but he did not lack for enthusiasm and his BBC Scottish was not all over the place in the same way.

I am in awe at Segerstam's ability to make this music so un-visual and so un-evocative. It amazes me that he has recorded them all twice (at least now I know that I need not bother checking them out).

All in all a rather disappointing series: why could they not have engaged some of the fine Sibelians based in this country - Oramo or Davis! When the broadcasts make it to R3 (late January) the 3rd and Kullervo with Vanska are an absolute must. Volkov's 4th is well worth hearing. But less so the rest.

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