Ever since our move back from England to Goa, the nearest music hub for high-calibre music concerts is Mumbai. Goa does get a few concerts now and then, but nowhere near the frequency of Mumbai. So I try my best to make my visits to the big bad city coincide with classical music concerts, whenever possible.

I’ve just returned having attended two concerts by the Symphony Orchestra of India. The September season of concerts commemorate 60 years of diplomatic relations between India and Germany.

The first concert, therefore, was an all-Beethoven affair: the Leonore overture no. 3, the much-loved Violin Concerto, and his Sixth Symphony (the ‘Pastoral’).

The concert began with the national anthems of the two countries. It is always such a joy to hear our Jana Gana Mana in rich orchestral colour.

The Leonore 3 excited, but could have been infused with a little more finesse and sense of drama. The off-stage trumpet heralding the arrival of the Minister Don Fernando and the subsequent release of Florestan sounded a tad sharp in relation to the orchestra.

Then came Lena Neudauer onstage to play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, but with a twist: the cadenzas featured throughout the concerto would not be the familiar offering by Fritz Kreisler (several other violinists from Leopold Auer to Joshua Bell have written their own cadenzas to this concert too), but the transcription of Beethoven’s own cadenza that written by him when he had reworked this composition as a concerto for Piano and Orchestra due to the Violin Concert’s lack of success at its premiere (long story). This cadenza has a liberal sprinkling of timpani embellishing the solo violin as well. I had heard Wolfgang Schneiderhan’s transcription of this cadenza on a recording over the radio some years ago, and more recently had heard Christian Tetzlaff play his own transcription of it at the BBC Proms 2012 (Prom 71, 4 September 2012) with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

The woodwind entry after the four timpani beats could have been gentler. The Larghetto began at one tempo which the conductor Christoph Poppen then seemed to want to crank up a notch.

Neudauer’s playing was assured and true. The multiple “mini-cadenzas” at unexpected moments during the concerto, especially in the last movement (I counted three), compelled one to listen to this familiar work in a new light.

 

(Photos courtesy NCPA/SOI)

A well-deserved standing ovation elicited an encore (Kreisler’s Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice for solo violin).

After the interval came the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. The playing got better and better as the orchestra warmed to the work, and the opening of the second movement [Andante molto mosso (Scene at the brook)] began especially wonderfully, with gently undulating lower strings as the first violins introduced the beautiful theme. The ‘Happy gathering of Country folk’ (3rd movt) was rendered with foot-stomping abandon, while the subsequent ‘Thunderstorm’ had all the stops pulled out for a right Beethovenesque Sturm und Drang burst of fury. The ‘Shepherds’ Hymn’ came then as a welcome relief.

In general, the woodwind passages in the Violin Concerto and the Pastoral were slightly underwhelming, often too shrill or brash (with the notable exception of the enchanting second movement of the ‘Pastoral’).

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The orchestra was in fine fettle for their second concert. It seemed that most of their rehearsal time might have been devoted to this concert, to the relative neglect of the first all-Beethoven one.

The concert programme was a formidable one: Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin; then Richard Strauss’ tone poem Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transformation), and crowned by Mahler’s much-vaulted Fifth Symphony.

The opening to Wagner’s Prelude was sheer magic. After the introductory chords came the silken beauty of the violins, then joined in turn by woodwind, lower strings and brass. By the time the timpani roll appeared, and then the clash of cymbals, we had been through a truly transcendental experience bordering on the metaphysical. Space and time became an irrelevance. When the work ended with the sparse harmony of the violins in the upper register, one wanted the final chord to go on forever.

Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration has the metaphysical in spades; he is believed to have been influenced by his friend the musician-poet Alexander Ritter. Strauss said “He urged me on to develop the expressive, the poetic in music after the example set up Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner”. Ritter’s influence spurred Strauss to channel his creative energies into “program music”, his celebrated symphonic poems, or “tone-poems” (Tondichtungen). But although a poem by Ritter prefaces the score of  Tod und Verklärung, the poem was in fact written after the composition was finished, at Strauss’ urging. None of Strauss’ other tone poems have a detailed literary program.

There are four parts:

I. Largo (The sick man, near death)

II. Allegro molto agitato (The battle between life and death offers no respite to the man)

III. Meno mosso (The dying man’s life passes before him)

IV. Moderato (The sought-after transfiguration).

Under Poppen’s baton, this became gripping drama from the weak “gasps” in the strings, the thready “heart-beat” in the timpani at the very beginning, all through to the final chords of the “Transfiguration”.

Yet it was in the Mahler 5 that the SOI truly outdid themselves. Resident conductor Zane Dalal who delivered a pre-concert talk mentioned that the orchestra was proud of this achievement, and the pride is quite justifiable.

The work was quite obviously well-rehearsed, and it showed. Even the couple of intrusive mobile phone ringtones (one of them went of right at the end of the sublime Adagietto, as the movement was fading away into nothingness) failed to mar such an inspired reading of this monumental work.

This was certainly a coming-of-age concert for the SOI. It was a pity I couldn’t linger on in Mumbai to hear the last concert of the season, devoted to operatic arias and overtures and Strauss (yes, the other Strauss) waltzes, conducted by Zane Dalal.

More power to you, SOI!

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