Wednesday 11 June 2008

Brendel/LSO/Haitink: Mozart and Strauss, 10 June 2008

Barbican Hall

Mozart - Piano Concerto no.24 in C minor, KV 491
Strauss - Eine Alpensinfonie

Alfred Brendel (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

This was always going to be a special occasion: one of Alfred Brendel's final London performances and in collaboration with none other than Bernard Haitink. Yet I felt the occasion was perhaps greater than the performance itself, when it came to the Mozart C minor piano concerto. There was certainly nothing wrong with the performance, aside from a slightly acidic quality to the LSO's violins. I wondered whether this was an unlikely sacrifice towards the false god of 'authenticism' but its continuation in some at least of the Strauss suggested not; the paucity of strings, from ten first violins down, was disappointing in this respect, however. The woodwind generally sounded beautiful, even if they lacked the last ounce of Viennese individuality. String articulation was on occasion slightly fussy, although one would generally hear far worse today. Perhaps it was the fault of where I was sitting, rather further forward in the stalls than might have been advisable, yet the orchestral blend left a little to be desired. There was no question that Brendel and Haitink both understood the piece inside out but there remained a want of passion, of drive even, especially during the first movement. Recall Beethoven's passion for this work and his claim that no one in his own age could have written it. Structurally everything was as sound as one would expect, save for a surprising slowing down, noticeably rectified by a somewhat abrupt resumption of tempo, in the final movement. Brendel's touch was its usual truthful self: not plain but simply revealing the music, apparently in itself. There were even hints of old masters such as Schnabel and Edwin Fischer, both of course great Mozartians. The opening of the slow movement was an especial highlight in this regard. Yet it seemed to me that he only reached his heights in the encore, the Schubert A-flat major impromptu, D.935/2. Here a lifetime's wisdom was distilled and Brendel's powerful imagination was given freer rein. Every note was made to tell, intellectually and emotionally. The final bars were moving as only Schubert can be - and only when performed like this. This in itself was more than worth the price of admission.

Haitink gave a very strong account of Strauss's Alpine Symphony. The work has had so many detractors that one might be tempted to wonder oneself. Even Karajan once claimed to conduct it for the epilogue alone and one can almost understand what he meant, whilst at the same time hearing that he did no such thing. By all means criticise Strauss for moral shortcomings but his compositional mastery here cannot be gainsaid. What An Alpine Symphony needs however is a truly symphonic account, which pays heed to or at least corresponds with its originally-intended subtitle, 'The Anti-Christ'. This it received here. Haitink refused to indulge the score - and goodness knows, there are enough temptations to do so here; the result was that its archlike structure emerged all the more clearly and meaningfully, with the pictorial elements very much taking a backseat. This is not to say that they were absent, for how could they be? The appearance of the waterfall was as beautiful as I have heard, yet the refusal to linger paid off handsomely. The extraordinarily tricky solo violin figurations were superbly handled, as the LSO's upper strings gradually acquired a greater bloom. Woodwind instruments were generally beguiling, with the oboe solo at the summit especially moving. And the brass, with but one brief movement of relative crudity, were resplendent throughout, not least in the case of the mass of hunting horns. However, when night fell, the structural strength of Haitink's reading reminded us that the day's journey had been primarily metaphysical - or, rather, in properly Nietzschean terms, anti-metaphysical.