How does a world class orchestra cope with an indifferent conductor and two flawed masterpieces?
The answer, so far as the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra is concerned, is with determination and supreme professionalism.
Conductor Thomas Sanderling is something of a remnant from the Soviet era. Imbued with the concept that performing great music with great orchestras is an industrial rather than an artistic exercise, his interpretations are driven by ideology rather than inner conviction. Everything is directed towards the moment with little sense of delving beneath the surface to release what it is the notes are trying to tell us. A nice sound seems to be what he is after with minimal emotional involvement.
He certainly got a nice sound from the MPO when he directed their concert over the first weekend of April. True, the horn tone was horribly hard and unyielding, a world away from the luxuriantly obese quasi-saxophone tone Sanderling would have enjoyed from his Soviet-era horns, while the basses were given almost frightening prominence (a problem, I realise, of the MPO's current seating plan which has the basses pushing out their sound uninterruptedly over the first violins rather than filtered through a sea of cellos). The orchestral layout, rather than any weakness in Sanderling's attention to inner balance, was probably to blame for the fact that, from my seat, the entire cello section along with the clarinets and flutes were totally masked by the piano lid, leading to an unfortunate gap in the overall orchestral picture. But no seating plan is perfect, and however an orchestra decides to set itself out on stage, there will always be winners and losers; the winners on this occasion being the violins whose ravishing tone was vividly on display. Nothing, it seems, can stop this orchestra from sounding wonderful.
It would be wrong for me to describe Grieg's Piano Concerto as a flawed masterpiece. Flawed it most certainly is, but masterpiece it most certainly is not. While I would not go so far as to echo the words of my old Cardiff lecturer, Ian Bruce, who frequently informed us that "Grieg could NOT compose", I'd certainly suggest that once he'd covered a single sheet of manuscript paper with a nicely harmonised folksy melody and generous repeat markings, Grieg's inspiration dried up. He could definitely compose charming piano miniatures; it's just that anything longer and requiring more instrumental colour seemed to defeat him. The Concerto, his most successful venture into extended orchestral music, survives because the melodic material is so delightful and the orchestral writing, often little more than obvious clichés, inoffensive. Sanderling started it off in a rather lacklustre, indifferent manner – there was none of the drama or awesome splendour some can draw from these bars – but as soon as Alice Sara Ott took over, the whole thing became infinitely more elevated. She revelled in the lyricism, stirred up the drama and entered into such an intimate relationship with the orchestra that it took on an almost chamber-like character. Who's to tell whether this might not have become a memorable performance had not the Front of House staff (complete with crackling walkie-talkies) decided to let in latecomers with plenty of fuss and kerfuffle even as the first movement was giving way to the idyllic second? As it was, the interruption had destroyed the magic, and the remainder of the Concerto passed by routinely. Ott produced a stunning wealth of dynamic richness from the piano and her interplay with the orchestra was a joy to behold, but the spell had been broken and Sanderling's four-square approach meant that we were made embarrassingly aware that Grieg, desperately trying to hold his ideas together by means of strict classical form, lacked the skill to paper over the inbuilt cracks in any formal musical structure.
Under normal circumstances, Ott's choice of Liszt's La Campanella would have seemed an inappropriate choice for encore – here, surely, is a chance to show what Grieg really could do with the piano in his almost made-for-encore solo pieces – but the atmosphere had already been tainted, and she delivered it with such enchanting aplomb – taking the broken string effortlessly in her stride – that it deserved the rapturous response it received from audience and orchestra alike.
When I first learnt that Sanderling was to perform a version of Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony in which the closing bars were to be replaced by a restatement of the final part of the first movement, I have to confess to being puzzled. He explained that this was how it was performed during the Soviet era and, as Tchaikovsky himself had subsequently (having earlier described the whole work as one of the best things he had ever done) expressed dissatisfaction with the ending, I wondered whether this might not have been a composer-sanctioned way of ending the work. I expressed some puzzlement about this in an earlier post, and I received several very interesting responses; too late, I regret, to include in my concert notes. All agreed that it was how the Symphony was invariably performed in the Soviet Union, but both a member of the Tchaikovsky Society and a German PhD student preparing a thesis on Soviet attitudes to pre-Soviet music offered some more detailed insight. It seems that Stalin objected to music which implied that there was something better than life under his rule; specifically music expressing an eternal, heavenly resolution to earthly woes. Tchaikovsky had Manfred finding ultimate redemption and "seeing a heavenly light" shrouded in ethereal orchestral tones complete with organ. Old Joe S didn't like this at all, so to keep him happy, when it came to the moment of Manfred's redemption he was taken back to the maelstrom of earthly existence given out in the first movement. Tchaikovsky's Manfred is a masterpiece; but in this version it is a flawed one, and one can only speculate as to why Thomas Sanderling thought Malaysia an appropriate place to revive this long-forgotten bastion of Soviet ideology?
The problem is that you cannot escape the niggling feeling that it's all been a waste of time, that the Symphony would have been just as effective had it ended after the first movement and allowed us to get to the bar that much sooner. Perhaps this would have been best on this occasion, for Sanderling took us on an interminable trudge through the normally light-as-a-feather second movement (those of us who recall Kees Bakels doing this symphony with the MPO a decade ago will not have forgotten the gossamer thin delicacy with which he ended this charmer of a movement). MPO Concertmaster Marcus Gundermann certainly tried to evoke that delicacy as he sent the movement off into high orbit, but Sanderling's reading was just too laden to let it really get off the ground. The high point, however, was that whirling Russian dance which dominates the opening of the final movement. Exciting and compelling, this may not have been quite as rumbustious as it could, but nothing was going to stop the determined MPO from showing their mettle in this great display of collective virtuosity.
Indifferent conductor, flawed masterpieces, but, as ever, astonishingly accomplished orchestral playing, and it is this last aspect which sticks in the memory, long after the concert's weaker points have, like the Soviet era, passed into merciful oblivion.