OTTO TAUSK FINDS HIS STRIDE WITH BEETHOVEN’S 7TH
Cédric Tiberghien (piano), VSO/ Otto Tausk: Works by Kodaly, Bartok and Beethoven, Orpheum, September 28, 2018.
This was Otto Tausk’s second set of concerts as the VSO’s new music director and it yielded an estimable Beethoven’s 7th, fresh and well sprung, sure in discipline and line, and finding appropriate power when needed. This was his best effort yet. With the appearance of the distinguished French pianist Cédric Tiberghien, one might have hoped that the performance of Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto might even surpass the Beethoven, but it turned out more uneven. Part of the problem in the concerto may have stemmed from the conductor’s experiment of setting up the orchestra in classical European style. This adjustment seemed to imbalance the overall acoustic, most noticeably when the piano was present. Still, with a creditable reading of Kodály’s Dances of Galanta to start, this was a rewarding outing all told.
It is always nice to have a concert featuring Bartók and Kodály together, lifelong friends as they were. Their trips to the Hungarian heartlands in 1908 – to find folk roots and rhythms – is one of the celebrated attempts to put musical anthropology at the service of composition. (Given modern cultural assimilation, it is much less likely these explorations would ever be undertaken today.) Kodály’s Dances received tight-knit treatment from Maestro Tausk, which payed off in rhythmic energy throughout, not least in the fury of the final dance. The orchestra carried the line of the work well, and the woodwinds (Jeanette Jonquil’s clarinet in particular) made genuine attempts to phrase idiomatically. This was enjoyable, yet the conductor’s astringency sometimes took me more to middle-period Bartók than the more luxuriant rustic world of Kodály. For example, the opening string ‘stabs’ of the Dances did not need to be as acerbic as they were, while the passionate string outbursts later might have lingered with greater melancholy. I think there was room for more colour overall: recalling conductors who knew Kodály (Ferenc Fricsay), it is apparent that the slower dance rhythms need to find real sensuality and anticipation as well, with tantalizing ‘delays’ and other types of rubato. They were indeed inspired by the gypsies of Galanta.
Which brings me to the issue of sound. Rather than the conventional orchestra layout used in his first concerts, Tausk moved to a classical European seating: split first and second violins, with both cellos and basses quite far left and back. With only second violins on the immediate right and trumpets in the very distant rear, this left much of the right side of the stage bare, inviting acoustical reflection. In fact, the bass was attenuated and the upper partials were highlighted in a relatively untamed way, including a tangible echo on the brass and an ‘edge’ on the top wind notes. (Perhaps the Kodály actually had more warmth and tonal luster than I could hear.) Adding the piano did not help, as the instrument’s top notes would sometimes splay and discolour at louder volumes. Such a situation is unfortunate since the Bartók Third Piano Concerto is such a balanced, finely-honed composition with respect to dynamics and texture. At the same time, one eagerly looked forward to Cédric Tiberghien’s appearance, fresh off his completion of the first new cycle of Bartók’s works for solo piano since that of Zoltán Kocsis two decades ago.
Issues of sound aside, it would still be difficult to regard this Bartok collaboration as a fully finished product. Overall, the approach seemed too youthful and robust for one of the composer’s last statements, not fully digging into its meditative corners or subtle wit. (Bartók died with the concerto unfinished in 1945: its last bars were orchestrated by Tibor Serly.) I have always thought that there must be a certain patience in probing the complexity of this work in performance, but it was the eagerness of the expression and the targeting of Bartók’s more powerful dramatic outbursts that stood out here. The work’s opening was not quite quizzical or playful enough; subsequently, Tiberghien often substituted sharp, dramatic emphasis for a natural rhapsodic flow. The clean precision and strength of his playing was noteworthy, yet the pianist’s loud punctuations seemed to slow down the music while the whimsical transitions of the first movement did not inspire much quicksilver or delight. Some of the orchestra’s contribution also seemed on the eager side, having zeal but relatively little shading and texture.
The Adagio religioso brought more affecting playing from Tiberghien and he caressed his simple opening melody with feeling. Tausk’s quiet suspending strings at the start matched the mood, though his tempo might have been even slower to fully instate the mystery and stillness of Bartok’s ‘night music’. The engulfing climax to the movement certainly had strong projection, but this is where I felt most sonically challenged by the hard, unfocused sound. Heady elation and power characterized the closing movement, with fine moments of virtuosity from the pianist and strength at its exhilarating ending, yet I still felt this sort of rollicking approach aimed too much at cinematics and too little at the work’s subtle corners of expression. There is still more thinking to do here.
The Beethoven 7th came after the interval, and it was with some interest that I noted that the trumpets had been moved closer to fill the empty space on the right side of the stage. It turned out that I didn’t find the same sonic difficulties. This was the best performance so far for the conductor and a highlight for the orchestra. Tausk’s approach was desirably unaffected, finding expressive consistency and inevitability over the full work. He employed around 50 players, so there was no attempt at truly authentic scale, but it still was a historically-informed ‘modern instruments’ rendering, following, say, Sir Charles Mackerras and David Zinman. Tempos were characteristically on the brisk side, and there was a strong interest in achieving both transparency and rhythmic acuity. Having the second violins on the right immediately showed itself as an asset in the opening Allegro, since there are so many passages which require antiphonal clarity. I even managed to note a new ornament in the oboe’s lead-in to a repeat half way through the movement. This was a very different Beethoven than we have seen here in the past.
An appealing momentum marked the opening movement, not belabouring itself at the start and moving with sprung rhythms and a definite freshness to the stronger dramatic postures. The sense of ‘dance’ that many commentators have cited was in evidence. Contributing to the story was the estimable balance achieved in the strings and winds, with a very fine showing from the horns, who even managed to achieve a darker, throatier European sound in some of their softer, accompanying passages. The famous Allegretto was taken more quickly than traditional romantic treatments, but its flow was absolutely sure, and the right expressive and dramatic ingredients were present. The bustle of the Scherzo, and the sense of question and answer in the strings and winds, fit this interpretative template perfectly. The celebrated finale featured interesting interplay between the first and second violins and an unusual expansion of the length of some of the former’s lines, but Tausk always sustained a judicious tempo to take the work home in all its power and glory. Very impressive indeed!
© Geoffrey Newman 2018