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Mozart: Piano Concerto No.27; Bruckner: Symphony No.4 (LSO, Haitink, Pires)

17 June 2011

Mozart: Piano Concerto No.27 in B Flat Major, K595
Bruckner: Symphony No.4 in E Flat Major, “Romantic”

Maria João Pires (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

Barbican Centre, London
Thursday, 16 June

This was a concert oddly less than the sum of its parts. Called in at short notice for the “indisposed” Murray Perahia, Pires prefaced Haitink’s Bruckner with late Mozart, as she will David Zinman’s “Eroica” in Prom 57 later this year. That choice probably makes much more sense, for this jarred more than it illuminated.

Haitink’s Mozart jarred too. The LSO barely shrank to ten first violins and three basses, which at least gave the quite outstanding woodwind slightly more of a sound envelope through which to work. I’ve never heard Haitink’s Mozart before, and it is a pity I heard it in such a beguiling, sombre work as this before anything else. His orchestral opening was vivacious, almost recalling the activity of the Figaro overture, and though it was a little bubble-wrapped in articulation, phrasing was characterful (though became less so). Things became rather disjointed as time went on, though that was probably more the result of Mozart’s Haydn-in-a-dreary-mood experimentation with harmony and structure than anything Haitink might otherwise have contributed: what he did, however, was give the LSO a floaty-light texture, leavened by the lightest of bass. And there was some absolutely ravishing wind work, especially from Gareth Davies, the LSO’s principal flute.

Pires, playing with rather than against this backdrop, was spellbinding; perhaps even too much so, for the concerto passed amiably, entirely without ferocity to ripple Mozart’s saddened waters. Her entry married grace, poise, and sheer beauty of tone: more purely elegant, eloquent Mozart playing is rare, particularly when it remains so in otherwise attention-grabbing cadenzas. The Larghetto was charming in a docile, sedentary way, with a wistfulness to phrasing and voicing, and the instant move into the concluding Allegro put me in mind of a teddy bear awaking, crowning himself king of the bedroom. Wit was in short supply, but made up for in suppleness. An excellent, ruminative performance.

Haitink’s Bruckner never jars: he is the currently the world’s foremost interpreter of the great Austrian’s works. This performance was so good that all it really did was emphasise the formal deficiencies in Bruckner’s (relatively) early work: the heights of the Fifth – which Abbado conducts with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra at the RFH in October, and Haitink with the Concertgebouw at the Barbican in May – and, even more, the Eighth and Ninth, are far away indeed. Colour, texture, the long line, drama, pacing: all and more were present here, even in the opening bars as the winds answered David Pyatt‘s (mostly fine) solo horn across the misty valley. What a difference an orchestra playing with confidence and gusto makes to sound quality – this was a much-needed tonic for me after a year of the bedraggled Boston Symphony Orchestra. There was an edge of terror to the massed strings (sixteen first violins) which foreshadowed the God-soaked later works. The development section of the opening movement was shocking in the roar of the brass, their penetrative powers (a shade too much), and the sheer fluorescence of their central chorale. As the opening material recapitulated, Davies joined Pyatt to magical effect, driving towards a tension-racked final few pages: when the climax came, as always it does with Bruckner, it did so mightily, stealing in.

After that, Bruckner somewhat loses inspiration. The slow movement is simply long, and Haitink tried to maintain interest by alternating between seeing all the trees and no wood, and all the wood and none of the trees. One struggled to find fault with the Scherzo, which seemed wittier than the LSO’s contribution to the Mozart, with trombones and string tremolandos particularly effective, surrounding chattering winds and flexible phrasing from internal string parts, singing out. It was all a bit massive, though: I’ve clearly been listening to too much Haydn recently. The finale was instantly more alive, with jaunty pizzicato basses and the horns’ tone beautifully judged. Unlike elsewhere, particularly the Fifth, things less build than happen in the crucial finale of the Fourth. Haitink’s control was absolute enough to show that Bruckner’s plan is little more than a mess: at least Celibidache, on EMI, mangled the coda sufficiently – to twice its usual length! – to make it worth the previous 75 minutes.

The LSO – and Haitink – could have done little more here, especially not in terms of the kaleidoscopic palette employed (which bodes well for next Thursday’s Ravel). Ultimately, though, Bruckner provides us with a fizzle: a symphony with potential, fulfilling little of it other than the promised headache.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 11 July 2011 6:34 pm

    Superb site.
    Ken Ambros

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