“Otto Klemperer once said to me that all music has only a single correct tempo, as the composer imagined it, because a particular pace is indissolubly linked with the process of composition. It is only when we discover this intended tempo that the music blossoms as it should.”
Kubelik’s comments came on the heels of his 1976 recordings of the Beethoven Symphonies with nine different orchestras. (Deutsche Grammophon 2710 155—no collection is complete without this set.) While particular to those discs, his passed-down observation was made in the context of Beethoven, it is true of all music.
If our most universal art is, as Heinrich Schenker so succinctly put it, “motion in time,” then it is up to performers and conductors to strive for tempi and flow that allow the composer’s thoughts to be revealed rather than force his ideas upon us.
Unfortunately, Orchestra London Canada music director Timothy Vernon was more focussed on speed and bombast than long lines and subtlety. He’d assembled a capable team for these works and there were some moments of great beauty, but those were the exception, rather than the rule.
As executive director Robert Gloor gave the now obligatory “commercial” prior to any note being heard (cross-reference below) I assumed that the a-musical wheezing sound that accompanied his pleas was some sort of feedback from the microphone. But no. Our constant companion throughout the concert was the heaving and groaning of an antiquated heating system, which effectively robbed the Raminsh Magnificat of any chance for quiet greatness.
Nonetheless, the five-movement setting was the highlight of the night as Anita Krause rose above the mechanical din, using her warm, clear tone to great advantage. The chorus responded in kind and what their final consonants lacked in ensemble was more than made up for with enthusiasm and conviction. Vernon kept things moving forward but seemed one rehearsal away from mastering the many rhythmic complexities of this score that pays loving homage to Orff and Finzi.
In general, the orchestra came across well, but, perhaps due to their re-arrangement on stage to allow for the choristers, had balance problems: the brass too easily heard (and in need of shorter stacatti); the woodwinds too “far back,” (particularly the clarinets which, from my balcony seat, seemed to be coming from backstage) the strings were solid (especially the second violins who were led with great distinction), and the tympani would have benefited from smaller, harder sticks in order to prevent the unintentional swamping of colleagues and soloist alike.
I have heard hundreds of versions of Op. 125, but never imagined it at the 401-speeds chosen by Vernon. Key to Beethoven’s indications of the moody first movement is “ma non troppo.” To their credit, his charges went along fearlessly but any chance for relaxing with the architecture and savouring the magic of the harmonic shifts (what is the subtext of the excursion to E-flat major?) was lost in this reading that was closer to polka than majesty.
All of that opening agitation left the “Scherzo” sounding like more of the same rather than a contrasting pulse. Gold medals to the woodwinds for keeping the Presto on the rails.
Having the soloists march on before the “Adagio” added an almost circus effect to the proceedings. A burst of applause from the dutiful audience and it seemed like the “overture” was done so, now, let’s bring out the next act. Would the guest artists not want to be a part of the entire symphony, steep themselves in the early movements, all of which add to the fabric of the Finale and their understanding of it? Just asking …
Those of you still reading are probably wondering when this diatribe will end—clearly he’s grumpy so why continue? Because there were some spectacular musical moments during the slow movement. Once it got going and especially when Vernon favoured his left hand and banished the too-punchy right, we were treated to phrases that had glow, direction and substance. The music sang. Oh, that a video camera had captured those moments so as to inspire further thought and work in the quest to produce many, many more. Even the building’s pipes could be endured if we had a steady diet of this calibre of music-making.
The combined choruses were the stars of the Finale. It was a pleasure to be in the room with so many young women and men singing—revelling and “getting dirty with the notes” in performances that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. If all of us had that opportunity at an early age, then the Calgary Philharmonic would not be facing bankruptcy and the Vancouver Symphony about to (again) perform the Prelude to Cost-Efficiencies, Opus $. So congratulations, conductors and coaches, your members did you proud. As did the four soloists who blended seamlessly with well-matched timbres.
The large audience clapped and shouted their delight and, no doubt, looking forward to further musical experiences with this remarkable ensemble. JWR