Let’s be honest, you know that you’re going to get a damn good performance whenever Simone Young is involved. Her conducting is emotive and detailed, and ideally suited for this evening’s music – modern and sharp in the first half, and full of subtle structural detail in the second half.
Simone Young. Photo © Monika Rittershaus
There was a viola focus in at least part of this concert with Bartók’s Viola Concerto, as well as composer and former Berlin Philharmonic violist Brett Dean’s new Notturno Inquieto. Dean’s Notturno Inquieto is a new work, only premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic this time last year. Part of their series of short ‘tapas’ pieces, or pieces with a duration of approximately six minutes, this was designed as a farewell to the Berlin Phil’s conductor Sir Simon Rattle. The piece opens with a series of spikey fragments from the violas, developing into a back-and-forth with various sections of the orchestra (including subterranean rumbles from a piano). Sustained percussive chimes kept the atmosphere ethereal and suitably nocturnal, before shifting into a wind-and-brass attack over scurrying strings. My regular concert co-conspirator (not into classical much, as a rule) was mesmerised by some of the weird and wonderful sounds of Dean’s orchestration – just how did the violins and violas at the very end of the piece sound so electronic? This was a complex piece, but performed with utter confidence and sincerity by QSO and Simone Young.
The concert continued with Bartók’s Viola Concerto, played by German soloist Nils Mӧnkemeyer. One of my lecturers in my undergraduate days was totally enamoured with Bartók’s music, and I have to admit that for a long time I didn’t share his enthusiasm… then I heard his Divertimento for String Orchestra, and I suddenly felt that I understood where my lecturer (and Bartók himself, for that matter) was coming from. The Viola Concerto is in a fairly similar style to that piece, and was pretty much Bartók’s last work. In fact, it was never quite finished, so Tibor Serly’s completion is the version generally performed today.
Mӧnkemeyer’s recorded output with Sony tends towards the friendlier side of classical rather than much post-nineteenth century, so it’s interesting to hear him tackle the Bartók. Perhaps it’s next in his upcoming releases? Mӧnkemeyer’s tone is remarkably clear and powerful, and although he took a less forceful approach than some (like, for instance, Kim Kashkashian’s vicious and raw performance), there was still plenty of bite where needed. The third movement’s frantic dance took off like a rocket and, after massive approval from the audience, Mӧnkemeyer concluded with an encore of the brooding Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2 in D minor. This was probably not the greatest choice for an encore – after the extroverted finale of the Bartók I can’t imagine more of a mood-killer, although Mӧnkemeyer certainly played it beautifully.
Schubert’s Ninth Symphony is, of course, one of his most loved – just think of Robert Schumann’s exultant description of this work’s “heavenly length”. That being said, for many people I suspect that that very same length is one of the divisive things about late Schubert. It takes a top-notch performance (and maybe some judicious trimming of repeats) to sustain interest over any of his later work’s entire length, although this was never going to be an issue with a conductor as assured as Simone Young. She brought in the honeyed opening theme without excessive emotion – yes, it’s gorgeous, but this can easily drag the tempo back for the entire movement and end up feeling far too slow later in the movement. The first movement was taut and strong, with Schubert bringing in hummable tune after tune before the return of the theme.
The second movement was certainly lovely, but it’s the third movement Scherzo where attention starts to flag, I find. The main theme comes back just a few too many times, so as terrific as the performance was, could we not have trimmed some of those pesky repeats? The final movement’s infamously punishing violin figurations were executed neatly by QSO, and Young brought the whole thing home to a barnstorming conclusion. The audience clearly approved, bringing Young back several times for curtain calls. A fine evening of music-making!