Monday, November 02, 2015

A new castle for Lars Vogt

Guilty passion no.1 for a Londoner: loving a place up north. I have a sneaky, enduring and increasing fondness for Newcastle-upon-Tyne and its nearby Northumbrian coast. I first went there as a student and was transfixed by the silver sands, the ruined castles on the horizon, the sea-bound causeway to Holy Island, Lindisfarne; and the city itself is a treat, full of soaring Victoriana and great-arching, east-coast skies. Moreover, it reminds me a little of Budapest, with Newcastle on one side of the Tyne and Gateshead on the other. Add to that possibly the best-designed arts centre in the entire country in the form of The Sage.

The Sage (left) at sunset over the Tyne, seen from the Millennium Bridge. Photo: JD

So the chance the other day to zip up the east coast mainline to visit the Royal Northern Sinfonia and its newly incumbent music director, Lars Vogt, came as a welcome treat. Taking over from Thomas Zehetmair is no small order for this superb musician - and in choosing him the RNS seems to have been seeking an artist of similar type to Zehetmair, a fine soloist who is becoming adept on the podium as well and enjoys, sometimes, doing both at once.

Coincidentally, Vogt just reached a whole new audience when some problems with falling music in a recent concert went viral a couple of weeks ago, making his page-turner abruptly world famous...

Vogt, who's in his forties and hails from Rhineland Germany (though his current base is Berlin), first shot to prominence in a rather different way, winning second prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition back in the early 1990s; he and Simon Rattle, who was conducting the concertos, seem to have 'clicked' at once and Rattle invited him to make recordings soon afterwards. He is a peerless chamber music pianist, his closest collaborator being no less a violinist than Christian Tetzlaff; and his latest solo recording, of the Bach Goldberg Variations, has been a runaway success, refulgent with tenderness. His sheer affection for the music and its many facets shines out - and is shown to marvellous effect in the works of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

Therefore, on Friday I found myself listening to the best Mozart D minor Piano Concerto performance I've encountered in a long while. It is far from a favourite work of mine, especially as it is programmed so often that many [possibly still better] Mozart piano concertos are left in its shadow
(K453? K482? K491? Come on, people, there are 27 of these beauts...). Vogt first of all treated it as chamber music; secondly, he kept the second movement flowing and poised - it can be a disaster if it's allowed to sag, since it is so repetitive - and when Mozart flings D minor out of the window in the finale and reverts to humorous high-jinks, rather than shying away from the teasing triad figure in the coda and underplaying it, Vogt milked it deliciously. Humour and humanity are part and parcel of vintage Mozart, and this was a real joy.

Lars Vogt. Photo: Neda Navaee
Vogt is still refining his technique as conductor - he's certainly not conventional in podium aspect - but the crucial question is whether or not he is able to infuse the performance with the authentic spirit of the composer as well as he can on the piano. Early in his career, he developed a strong reputation for his playing of Haydn piano sonatas, so would this be carried through into the symphonies? Haydn's Symphony No.103, the 'Drumroll', left no doubt that it is.

Citing among his influences Gardiner and Norrington, yet leaving aside three-line whips on vibrato, Vogt focuses on long lines and vocal, eloquently articulated phrasing; a fine feel for tempo, balance and humour add much heart and soul to the effect and his terrific double-act with leader Bradley Creswick in the violin solo variation in the second movement drew a laugh from the audience - something we should indeed be allowed in Haydn. The two big works were ushered in respectively by Beethoven's Overture 'The Creatures of Prometheus' and Webern's Langsamer Satz - a tender glance forward to a later Vienna.

The RNS has introduced a new idea this season: after sitting as usual for the first half of the concert, most of the orchestra (with the obvious exceptions of cellos and basses) dispensed with their chairs for the second half. This, I sense, has its pros and cons; on the one hand there's more freedom of movement for each player, which some feel is reflected in the sound; but on the other, with considerable differences in height between desk partners, it can't be easy to get the music stands at the right level for everyone, and it probably doesn't do people's backs much good. It will be interesting to see whether they stick with it and whether the freeing-up effect is great enough to justify the necessary compromises. My personal impression was that they sounded so good in any case that the lily was perhaps being gilded. But a "suck it and see" attitude  to new ideas is more than slightly healthy.

You can read my full interview with Lars when it comes out in the new year - more of that anon.