Leila’s out, Berg’s snarling

Latest review from Birmingham in the exclusive Slippedisc/CBSO100 season coverage:

CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★

The gear change required between the opening andante and subsequent allegro sections in the first movement of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 is notoriously difficult to navigate. Start with the famous solo horn theme too slowly and portentously and when it returns triumphantly in the coda it’ll sound like a speeded-up record. Juanjo Mena avoided this pitfall; the tempi matched seamlessly and there was no need for an old-school ritardando. There was a price to pay though as Mena’s relentless briskness gave it a Rossini-like lightness and banality. Elspeth Dutch’s horn call was perfect for Mena’s approach but never suggested the promise of romance and mystery that left Schumann awe-struck. As we raced onward the symphony was gradually stripped of its majesty with only small pockets of beauty as compensation. Mena used a large body of strings but, in not doubling the wind section, left much of their music inaudible.

These deficiencies were highlighted by a wonderfully attentive, scrupulously observed and moving performance of Berg’s violin concerto. Ilya Gringolts, a late replacement for the indisposed Leila Josefowicz, was always gritty enough for the concerto’s occasional acerbities, there was a spirited tussle with the snarling trombones as the soloist’s nemesis, but also produced playing of ravishing beauty – the final Bachian chorale was balm from heaven. Mena ensured that Berg’s large orchestral forces were handled deftly, always allowing crucial details their full weight – such as the uncannily life-like impersonation of a small church organ by the clarinets of Oliver Janes and Joanna Patton.

Norman Stinchcombe

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  • Regarding the Schubert 9th, I would urge anyone interested in the piece to search the web for the tape of the June 24, 1965 concert given by Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra at the Concertgebouw. The performance was part of the Orchestra’s 11-week European tour. This concert featured Wagner’s Meistersinger, Barber’s Piano Concerto with John Browning and the Schubert 9th. The performances throughout are imo extraordinary especially given that the exposed oboe solos are played by the orchestra’s assistant principal serving as part-time principal for the tour. The 9th, given the pressures of a live performance on tour, provides the ultimate in performance art.

  • Glad to see Gringolts is getting work. He was a fairly frequent participant on violinist.com when I used to go there regularly — always pleasant and down-to-earth, e.g. willing to acknowledge the stress and self-doubt that accompany competitions etc. I enjoyed his Sibelius/Prokofiev recording, and would imagine he has grown a bit since then.

  • For what it’s worth, my own reaction to Mena‘s Schubert was much more positive. A ‚traditional‘ Performance it certainly wasn’t, but no less valid for that. What Mr Stinchcombe
    heard as relentless briskness was for me a genuinely thrilling freshness, full of excitingly dancing rhythms and, yes, really beautiful and imaginative phrasing. It made me see the Great C monster in a different and exciting light, and hence I was quite surprised by the three-star review. Everyone hears these works differently , of course; and no doubt that’s a major part of their greatness

    • YES I totally agree: it reminded me of around 1988 when Norrington conducted it like this and it was a revelation. Mena made it equally joyful and it seemed that the players loved performing with him.

  • Why did Juanjo Mena make an unwarranted adjustment to Schubert’s orchestration so that the opening theme by 2 unison horns was played by only one ‘solo’ horn?

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