Friday 15 June 2012

Pires/LSO/Haitink, - Purcell, Mozart, and Bruckner, 14 June 2012

Barbican Hall

Purcell-Steven Stucky – Funeral Music for Queen Mary
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.23 in A major, KV 488
Bruckner – Symphony no.7 in E major

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

More Purcell and Mozart in the second of these two LSO concerts with Maria João Pires and Bernard Haitink, with Schubert now ceding to Bruckner. I was intrigued by aspects of Steven Stucky’s re-creation – I am not quite sure what the right word would be – of Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary, but remained in two minds. Written in 1992 for wind, brass, percussion, piano, and harp, it was intended ‘to regard Purcell’s music, which I love deeply, through the lends of 300 intervening years.’ The opening march came across somewhat oddly, neither fish nor fowl, some of the woodwind sounds in particular a little too reminiscent of Sir Hamilton Harty’s Handel. Drum thwacks had a visceral, emotional impact somewhat lacking elsewhere, despite Haitink’s insistence upon solemnity and security of tread. I felt that I should rather hear either the ‘original’ – a loaded term, I know, but I am sure the reader will have a sense of what I mean – or something more re-creative. As we travelled through the funeral anthem and the closing canzona, the latter increasingly took over, the refraction of Purcell putting me in mind of the spirit of some of Berio’s transcriptions, including one of a Purcell hornpipe. Here there was much more of a sense of historical layering. Perhaps I should feel differently about the opening, were I to hear it again; I should certainly relish the opportunity. And please, more Baroque music from both the LSO and from Haitink!

The A major piano concerto, KV 488, has always been one of my very favourites, not least since it was both the first I recall hearing and, for that very reason, the one I chose as the first I should play in public myself. I wondered whether Haitink’s – Pires’s? – tempo in the opening tutti was a little on the swift side, or at least whether the music might have been dug into a little more probingly, but either things settled down upon the pianist’s entry or my ears adjusted. Once again Pires proved far more the chamber musician than the ‘soloist’; if that is to err, and I am not at all sure that it is, then it is certainly to err on the right side. True, she might have projected her line a little more strongly at times, but the way she drew one in to listen, both to her part and to the orchestra, especially the wonderful LSO woodwind, proved more than sufficient recompense. The siciliano rhythms of the slow movement were beautifully, meaningfully judged, alert to those extraordinary shifts of harmony – the opening theme presents what is surely a text-book example of the Neapolitan sixth – without any need for undue exaggeration. There was a noble simplicity to this that once again put me in mind of the LSO’s work with Sir Colin Davis. The balance between delicacy and boisterous good spirits, so typical of a Mozart concerto finale, was well struck on this occasion too.

Haitink showed once again – I was privileged recently to hear him conduct the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Fifth – why there is no greater Bruckner conductor alive; indeed, there is arguably none to match him. Indeed, whilst, at the time, I had found much to admire in Daniel Barenboim’s recent Royal Festival Hall performance of the Seventh Symphony, Haitink retrospectively put Barenboim’s more impetuous, arguably more ambitious, yet ultimately less satisfying, account firmly in its place. Perhaps unfashionably, this was the Nowak edition, allegedly 'controversail' cymbal clash and all. Bruckner performance stands, or at least it should, however, upon performance rather than edition, and there could surely be no controversy in that respect. Above all, Haitink’s unassuming mastery of the score stood upon his unfailing command of line. He had less truck with highlighting certain allegedly modernistic pre-sentiments than has become fashionable nowadays and, in the end, I think that is probably as it should be. They tend to jut out a little too much, to suggest a little too much desperation to connect Bruckner to the Second Viennese School. Here there were grace and singing tone I should be tempted to call Schubertian, were it not essentially more successful still than Haitink’s Schubert. Bruckner’s unfolding, especially in the first two movements, requires patience: not only patience, but patience nonetheless. Haitink has that in spades, without a hint, at least on this occasion, of the worthy or the routine. I was enthralled by the drama, rather as I have been with Boulez’s Bruckner, very different though it sounds, and, especially in the slow movement, was reminded of my life-changing experiences of Haitink’s Wagner. It is in that respect interesting that a performance so sure in its symphonic command should actually sound closer than many to the very different world of the music drama. Dialectics abond. One was aware, also in the scherzo, of the score taking its time, but never did it seem over-long. Quite the contrary, it seemed only as long as it need to be. (Would that could say that of all Bruckner performances.) The finale provided perhaps the greatest surprise of all. I do not intend to rehearse here my difficulties with the movement itself, but I cannot recall an occasion on which I came so close to being convinced that it worked. Indeed, had I been hearing it for the first time, I doubt that I should have had any concerns at all. The opening theme sounded, as it probably should, like a Romantic reminiscence of Haydn, but where often, given the weight of what has gone before, that character can tend to feel straightforwardly inappropriate, here it permitted of development, of interaction with what was to come in a fashion that I cannot help but describe as Beethovenian. It might not be the place, or at least not always the place, for a battle royal, but this sounded as close as possible to a fitting conclusion. The final bars crowned a magnificent performance, for which of course thanks at least equal must go to the superlative playing of all sections of the LSO. They clearly love playing for Haitink, and so they should.