Monday 11 June 2012

Pires/LSO/Haitink - Purcell, Mozart, and Schubert, 10 June 2012

Barbican Hall

Purcell – Chacony in G minor
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.20 in D minor, KV 466
Schubert – Symphony no.9 in C major, ‘Great’, D 944

Maria João Pires (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

Those of us who love the music of Purcell yet have not bought into the great ‘authenticity’ marketing scam – make the music sound as unpleasant and trivial as you possibly can, and you will garner bogus plaudits – do not have it easy. Time was when conductors as different as Celibidache, Barbirolli, and Boulez included this repertoire in their concerts. (Boulez, in the days when he drew liberally from the ‘museum’ regularly conducted Purcell, an intriguing, indeed mouth-watering prospect.) Nowadays, the prospect of but a few minutes of Purcell’s music on a concert programme marks a veritable red-letter day for us beleaguered souls, let alone the prospect of two concerts from Bernard Haitink and the LSO, both opening with music by England’s greatest composer. It is not, needless to say, quite so straightforward as that, in that the great Chacony in G minor was given in Britten’s wonderful arrangement for string orchestra, whilst the Funeral Music for Queen Mary will be given later in the week in a version by Steven Stucky. (A present oddity is that certain arrangements or transcriptions, for instance the odd Bach-Stokowski indulgence, are permitted by the ayatollahs of authenticity, though never the B minor Mass). Nevertheless, however much we might abhor the cliché, we by necessity find ourselves gather rosebuds whilst we may whilst declining to look gift-horses in their mouths.

And how splendid it was to hear both the LSO in this repertoire and Bernard Haitink. Haitink conducted the Chacony with an understated passion that was somehow characteristically both English and Dutch. (His Elgar is often underrated.) From the outset, one could not help but appreciate the life given to the performance by the voicing of inner parts, violas in particular. Quite different from Britten’s magnificent recording, this was a little more stately, insistent upon invariable tempo, for Haitink guided the progression of Purcell’s ground with impeccable understanding and communication of harmonic motion. Lullian grandeur and post-Dowland melancholy came together in alchemy that could only be that of Purcell. Careful dynamic shading was a hallmark, not only in some beautiful pianissimo playing but in a powerful crescendo a little before the end. Articulation from the LSO strings could hardly have been bettered, even if there were the odd occasion when I might have wished for a little more vibrato. The sadness at the end seemed almost to rival that of Dido and Aeneas. A forlorn hope, I am sure, but could we yet hope for some Rameau from Haitink? It would make a wonderful companion to his Ravel and Debussy.

Mozart’s D minor piano concerto completed the first half. The expectancy of the opening tutti was an excellent sign, attention to inner parts again a characteristic of Haitink’s balancing. It might seem odd to speak of spine-tingling pathos, but that is what we heard from the LSO. The first entry from Maria João Pires displayed exquisite touch, in a performance that would be careful in the best sense: certainly not dull, but attentive to the placing of every note. Nothing was imposed; everything gave the impression of immanence. The partnership of Pires and Haitink was well chosen, both musicians playing to each other’s strengths. Sometimes in the first movement I wished that Pires might let rip a little, yet sane musical values had their own reward. Her cadenza, Beethoven’s, combined the ruminative and the improvisatory (perhaps surprisingly so), intimacy and a heroism that had not hitherto been so overtly present, a true climax after which the orchestra sounded newly impassioned. The final bars proved both mysterious and heart-stopping.

Elegance, refinement, and heartfelt sincerity characterised the slow movement, both Pires and Haitink clearly communicating their love for Mozart. (How could one not love Mozart, one might well ask? Quite, but many performances suggest the contrary.) Command of musical line, both within and between episodes, was ever apparent, to an extent rare in either solo or symphonic music, let alone the give and take of a concerto performance. Silky strings and ravishing woodwind showed the LSO on Mozartian form as fine as that which they display for Sir Colin Davis. (It was, however, a little disconcerting to notice one critic snoring through much of the movement; it will be interesting to read the account of his dreams and their interpretation.) Pires took the finale attacca, succeeded by a tutti of well-nigh Beethovenian vehemence, which yet remained sensitive to the differences between Mozart and Beethoven. Cellos were especially important here with respect to the driving harmonic impetus they contributed. All proved equally sensitive to the moments of joy and, still more crucially, the sadness of Mozart in the major mode. Pires’s cadenza had certain Beethovenian characteristics but was more Romantically unstable, intriguingly if fleetingly so. The coda was an utter joy, all the more so for its ­echt-Mozartian subtleties of sado-masochistic ambivalence. A woodwind figure looked forward knowingly to Papageno, Haitink’s refusal to push the tempo providing its own justification.

In that context, but not, I think, solely in that context, the first movement of Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony proved somewhat disappointing, not in terms of the LSO’s excellent contribution, but Haitink’s interpretation, or rather lack thereof. The swift introduction was not the only point at which I missed Furtwängler’s incandescence. Continuity of tempo has its advocates, I know, but the lack of an accelerando into the exposition remains, at least for me, a problem. This was a brisk, no-nonsense account, without much if anything in the way of the daemonic, or indeed the drama of Schubert’s ebb and flow. The Andante was brisk, con moto indeed. Here, however, there remained space for unfolding, revelation even. Woodwind again excelled themselves: Christopher Cowie’s oboe, of course, but the entire band. Not that one should forget the warmly consoling strings, save for the fact that anger reminded us that consolation was at best half of Schubert’s story. Brass were frighteningly militaristic – shades of Haydn’s Mass in Time of War – but so was the drama as a whole. The scherzo was vigorous, weighty, and graceful, taken at an ideal tempo. However, it was difficult not to think that its trio, whilst possessing both grandeur and flow, would not have benefited from a slight relaxation of the reins. The finale possessed many of the same virtues as the scherzo proper, the sheer weight of the LSO’s orchestral sound here as crucial as the lightness that permitted a true sense of chiaroscuro. At the risk of undue repetition – the same charge used to be levelled at the composer – I really must credit the magical woodwind once again, as well as the Mendelssohnian agility of the strings. Trombones and the rest of the brass section were pretty fine too. Haitink’s sense of line never deserted him, but here, unlike the rather plain first movement, it seemed far more keenly married to communication of Schubert’s ebb and flow. If I had not been enthralled then, I certainly was by now. This was not Furtwängler, of course, but Haitink’s unshowy integrity was proffered in abundance.