Saturday 15 March 2008

SCO/Anderszewksi: Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven - 15 March 2008

Barbican Hall

Mozart – Symphony no.21 in A major, KV 134*
Haydn – Piano Concerto in D major, Hob.XVIII:11
Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.1 in C major, Op.15

Scottish Chamber Orchestra
David Watkin (director)*
Piotr Anderszewski (piano/director)

When was the last time you heard Mozart’s Symphony no.21? I dare say that it would most likely be some time ago, at least in concert. What might sound like a conventional concert programme – Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, although how often does one actually hear the three together in an orchestral concert? – was actually rather imaginative. Certainly one would be unlikely to suspect from such a combination that Haydn and Beethoven would provide two concertos, and Mozart a symphony.

The last of the eight symphonies Mozart wrote in Salzburg between December 1771 and August 1772 made an excellent curtain-raiser, and not just that. It was, unusually, directed from the ’cello of David Watkin, which actually makes quite a bit of musical sense if one is to do without a conductor, for the key to understanding Classical music is the bass line. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, as one would expect nowadays, was cut down to very small forces. The horns, as throughout, were natural instruments, but fortunately the consequent rasping was not over-emphasised. The strings were sparing with vibrato, although thankfully it was not eliminated altogether, after the perverse, indeed unlistenable example of Roger Norrington. There was a rather unfortunate passage during the slow movement, in which the absence of vibrato exposed all the more unmercifully the lack of precision in intonation, but this was an exception. As a whole, this Andante fared least well, long held notes being sometimes subjected to that toothpaste-squeezing effect so fashionable amongst the authenticists. It may not be necessary to enlist the Vienna Philharmonic to play with the perfection that even early Mozart demands, but it helps. Much of the rest of the performance was pleasing stylish, although there were moments in which I found the articulation a little forced. The minuet was taken with a due sense of style, far from the hurried approach currently fashionable, and the string pizzicati of the trio were especially notable in their unanimity and expressivity. That movement’s minor mode excursus had a welcome hint of the Sturm und Drang, though rightly but a hint: this is early Mozart, not Haydn, and should certainly not sound bizarre. Throughout, Mozart’s two flutes – the SCO’s Alison Mitchell and Elisabeth Dooner – sounded heavenly.

Haydn’s D major Concerto, whilst the most popular of his piano concertos, is heard less often than it might be. Likewise, there was no doubt that this second work was by Haydn, not Mozart, for which much of the credit must go to Piotr Anderszewski. Let there be no doubt about it: Anderszewski is a great pianist. His reading of the score was muscular and in no sense prettified, although this in no sense precluded moments of heartstopping delicacy. Anderszewski clearly understood the tonal plan of each movement and of the work as a whole, and communicated this to both orchestra and audience. Haydn’s vicaciousness was to the fore from the very opening of the first movement. In general, the strings employed more vibrato than they had during the Mozart symphony, although there were passages, again especially during the slow movement, which sounded rather too ‘authenticist’ for me. The Rondo all’Ungarese was full of incident: Anderszewski teasingly brought quirky harmonies and rhythms to our attention, without unnecessary underlining. As for the cadenzas, I assume that they were the pianist’s own. The first, from a more or less Beethovenian axis, looked back towards Haydn and forward into the nineteenth century, though harmonically no further than Schumann or perhaps Brahms. The second pointed forward a little further, largely to good measure – there was a lovely reminiscence or presentiment of Chopin – although there were a couple of moments about which I was a little less sure. Still, I should prefer experimentation a hundred times over pastiche. Playing with so small an orchestra meant that the piano part was more dominant than it might otherwise have been. This had advantages, as it also would in the Beethoven concerto, in that heard Anderszewski’s rock-steady bass line throughout; but I also missed a fuller orchestral sound and a greater sense of partnership. Having a separate conductor would have helped in this regard too.

Perhaps surprisingly, I felt this less in Beethoven’s first piano concerto. Indeed, the opening tutti was the most obviously ‘conducted’ passage of the evening, and greatly profited from the greater inflection this brought. Thereafter, there were passages which would have benefited from an additional pair of hands, which is no especial reflection upon Anderszewski; I can only think offhand of Daniel Barenboim as a pianist with absolutely no need of a conductor in this repertoire. Some of the music, perhaps especially during the finale, sounded a little sectional: partly, I suspect, on account of the lack of dovetailing a conductor would have brought. The structure was certainly clear, but transitions might have been more elegantly moulded in this respect. Anderszewski was vigorous with his hand movements when he was not playing, but I gained the impression that the orchestra was for the most part quite happily playing by itself – and rather well. My general preference would be for a larger orchestra as well as a conductor in this music, but the smaller forces of the SCO brought considerable detail to the fore, especially in the woodwind, whose contributions had a quality of Mozartian Harmoniemusik. As in the Mozart, the string pizzicati in the slow movement were magical. Barnaby Robson was simply outstanding on the first clarinet, as Anderszewski generously acknowledged during the applause. The natural brass and period timpani sounded as they do; many seem more partial than I to their sound. Anderszewski’s pianism seemed to me utterly beyond criticism. The Rondo was taken at a cracking pace, which set the pulse racing without ever sounding hard-driven. Even during the quietest of passages, which could be melting indeed, the pianist displayed a marvellously rounded fullness of tone. Throughout the work, he generated excitement and heart-stopping lyricism in equal measure. I should love to hear him in this piece with a conductor, if only to ascertain precisely what difference would be made. As for Anderszewski’s melting Bach encore, it would have imparted balm to the sternest of souls.