Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Prom 59 - Schiff/Gewandhaus/Blomstedt: Beethoven, 29 August 2016

Royal Albert Hall

Overture: Leonore, no.2, op.72a
Piano Concerto no.5 in E-flat major, op.73
Symphony no.7 in A major, op.92

András Schiff (piano)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Herbert Blomstedt (conductor)

Never having heard Herbert Blomstedt live, I rushed to buy a ticket for this Prom as soon as tickets went on sale. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was not an unattractive proposition either, of course. András Schiff: well, whatever has happened to him…?

Before coming to Schiff’s contribution, though, I should say something about the Leonore 2 Overture. Try as I might, I cannot hear it ‘in itself’; I hear it almost as a sketch for no.3, fascinated, but unable to hear what might be preferable in it. Insofar as direction can be afforded it, Blomstedt certainly did. The Gewandhaus Orchestra immediately announced itself with deliciously dark string tone – ‘old German’, if ever there were such a thing – and equally outstanding solo woodwind. Digressions were given time to speak, and sounded less digressive than they usually would. 

My reception of Schiff’s performance in the Fifth Piano Concerto was not unique, but it certainly did not seem to be shared by the greater part of the audience, which roared with approval. What I heard in Schiff’s first entry was what I heard more or less the whole way through: something that somehow married pedantry to mannerism, incapable of evenness in passagework (or at least unwilling to play evenly), either unphrased or with phrasing that was bizarrely unmusical, and peppered with equally unmotivated articulation. He did not seem to listen to the orchestra, with whom he fell out of sync more than once, leaving Blomstedt to put things right, and indeed seemed utterly (and undeservedly) self-regarding throughout. The orchestra sounded splendid on its own terms, and Blomstedt proved a sure enough guide, insofar as he could, although I found his handling of the first movement’s tutti passages a little foursquare at times. The slow movement started better; indeed, it almost sounded recognisable; it was not long, though, before Schiff’s perversities set in again. The finale offered more of the same, a terrible pity, given that the orchestra’s playing exhibited all the virtues it had in the overture. His piano, it seems, was a Bösendorfer; maybe so, but it did not sound like one. Is it perhaps the case that he is now more at home on period instruments? A recent Schubert disc sounded far more successful than his recent work with modern pianos. And, although strangely flashy, the Schubert encore (Impomptu, D 899/2) was considerably more convincing.

With just the orchestra and Blomstedt, the performance of the Seventh Symphony proved much more successful. The first movement introduction sounded full of tonal possibility, a worthy successor to Haydn. Orchestral clarity and tonal depth were revealed to be two sides of the same coin, the one enhancing the other. If I have heard more exciting transitions to the exposition proper, this was eminently musical, a proper continuation. Blomstedt’s way was not the knife-edge approach of Carlos Kleiber; indeed, it proved more Apollonian than Dionysian throughout the symphony. If it were not necessarily the way I think of the work, it was a perfectly valid alternative, from which much could be learned. The slow movement – yes, I know it is not a slow movement really, but it annoys the right people to call it that – was taken swiftly, and indeed almost without a break. That ‘following on’ intrigued, and proved highly successful; if only the bronchial brigade had been listening. A processional that might have fascinated Birtwistle ensued: played pretty ‘straight’, but certainly none the worse for that. The depth of string tone – depth, not necessarily volume – was truly a thing of wonder, but there was nothing narcissistic about this: all was at the service of the music, as the cliché goes.

Blomstedt took the scherzo very fast indeed; I am not sure I have heard it faster, although doubtless some ‘authenticist’ will have managed to cross the line in half the time, having ‘discovered’ that Beethoven’s dog had eaten his metronome. Or something. If I missed the darker urgency, the sense that the future of the world was at stake, one would hear from, say, Daniel Barenboim, there was no doubting the accomplishment of the playing; and, as I said, it is a good thing to hear alternatives, so long as they are not unutterably perverse. I found the lack of relaxation for the trio a pity – one does not have to go to the lengths of a Leonard Bernstein here to feel that some such response is helpful, even necessary – and felt puzzled by a subsequent ultra-slowing for the transition back to the scherzo the second time around, but it made me listen. The finale worked uncommonly well, I thought. Too often, it comes to sound harsh, inhumanly driven: what could be less Beethovenian? Here, though, it proved almost graceful. Lower strings and timpani proved ample harmonic grounding, whilst above, the dancing continued.

What seems to be a genuinely sunny disposition on Blomstedt’s part displayed itself also in the encore, the Egmont Overture. Not at the beginning, of course, in which the Gewandhaus Orchestra sounded still darker than it had earlier; perhaps more to the point, each note in that extraordinary introduction was invested with meaning. Here we moved closer to a ‘traditional’ reading. The rejoicing that followed returned us, howeverm to that earlier Apollonian disposition. And what playing we heard from the orchestra: to match any in the world!

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