Beethoven: Overture: Coriolan, op.62
Mozart: Piano Concerto no.21 in C major, KV 467
Haydn: Symphony no.98 in B-flat major
Jan Lisiecki (piano)
In some ways, this concert proved a mixed bag, but it was well planned and it came right where ultimately it mattered most. Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture was the weakest of the three performances. The symphonic Beethoven continues to elude not only, it seems, the grasp of most though not all contemporary conductors; this seems often to hold for audiences too, seemingly unaware as they lap up the latest fads of what they are missing. Was ever there a time when we needed Beethoven more? Not since the 1940s when, ironically, such music seemed better able to speak. Listen to Furtwängler in this overture, and the tragic impulse will never have felt more immanent. Alas, justified postwar suspicion of totalities has now degenerated into a weird mixture of circumscribing dogmatism and neoliberal pick-and-mix.
That, to be fair, was not what we heard here. Andrew Manze comes from the ‘period’ side of the tracks, but his work now is mostly with modern orchestras and he seems genuinely interested to discover what can be achieved with them. Not for him, nor indeed for the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, some perverse and unsuccessful attempt to imitate a ‘period’ ensemble (save for natural trumpets). The COE was handed no vibrato-Verbot; rather it sounded a little bright of tone and lacked, even in a small hall and on a very small stage, heft, strings a somewhat un-Beethovenian 126.96.36.199.3. We heard great precision, urgency, and a good sense of line; there was certainly none of that unphrased choppiness that passes for ‘rhetoric’ in certain quarters. The clue to what was missing lay in the second group. It did not yield or melt, let alone console; it simply continued, in strangely similar vein. Raised in genuinely non- and even anti-Romantic Neue Sachlichkeit, a conductor such as Klemperer would have had no need to slow here either. Carving into granite rather than channelling Furtwängler’s volcanic lava, he nonetheless conveyed what was at stake. This seemed ‘only’ to be a superior curtain-raiser; at least for poor, Romantic old me, it lacked meaning.
With Mozart, we were on surer ground. A Mozart piano concerto – more than a Mozart symphony – can unfold dramatically with greater ease from a small orchestra. Much of the writing, after all, truly is chamber music—and there is a sense of chamber music writ large, albeit in combination with symphonism, that is less evident in his symphonies, let alone those of Haydn and Beethoven. Manze is, on this evidence, a fine accompanist, as of course is the orchestra in general, sounding both polished and warm. The orchestra yielded a little more, especially when it came to woodwind passages. And Jan Lisiecki Lisiecki’s singing tone and command of chiaroscuro marked him out as a fine Mozartian as well as a fine pianist. His entry came very much from within the orchestra; he was one of them, primus inter pares, at least to begin with, playing muscular yet sensitive. Balance was excellent throughout; everyone was listening to each other. (Yes, that should go without saying, but does not always.) With that, came a freedom that had eluded the Beethoven performance. The COE strings played as if their lives depended on it; Lisiecki in turn serenaded them as if his did. Ironically, it sounded closer to Beethoven, whilst still very much being Mozart, than Coriolan had. Both cadenzas were unfamiliar to him: perhaps Lisiecki’s own? They slightly nudged the stylistic envelope, whilst remaining faithful in material: very much what one might hope for, surprises well-crafted rather than shocking. And here in the first movement, as elsewhere, Mozart’s major-minor polarity properly told.
As with the rest of the concerto, indeed the rest of the concert, the slow movement’s tempo was well chosen—and well established. It provided a framework for melody, harmony, and of course deep sadness, as well as twin resignation and joy in its face, all to combine. Piano cross-rhythms tugged at the heartstrings, as did woodwind chromatic inflections. All was greater than the sum of its parts. The finale was characterful, possessed of enough weight without the slightest heaviness. Performance from all was detailed without preciousness. It was, all in all, a lovely performance, to which Lisiecki added some Chopin in its vein.
Haydn’s Symphony no.98 fell somewhere in between. I could not help but feel it would have benefited from a larger orchestra; this music only sounds close to Beethoven because it is. Playing, however, was excellent throughout; the problem, some might argue, lay with my taste (or lack thereof). I think there was something more to it than that, though, especially in the first movement. What ensued lacked a sense of dialectical necessity, or indeed dialectics at all. There was much to admire, though, the development (perhaps surprisingly, given what I have just said) coming off best, with great clarity and fury, indeed opening with a sense of confusion or even chaos to peer forward to Haydn’s ‘Representation’ thereof in The Creation, as soon to come. Likewise, we heard a fine sense of exultation to the coda, however odd I may find the sound of natural trumpets; it just needed to be more evidently and harder won.
Manze’s tempo for the Adagio again, quite simply, worked. Perhaps a little faster than once we might have heard, it nonetheless sounded with the character of an ‘Adagio’, never shading in that respect into an ‘Andante’. Colours, not least those of a darker complexion, were well painted. And the movement as a whole developed in a way only the central section of the first movement had. I did not especially care for harpsichord continuo tinkling here or elsewhere, but it is difficult to argue against it in this symphony, given the written-out keyboard part in the finale. That had nothing to do, I should add, with Matthew Fletcher’s sensitive, astute realisation of Haydn’s bass; I just do not find it added much or ever does. The minuet was properly dance-like whilst maintaining both rigour and vigour. Its trio charmed: for me a highlight to the whole performance, strings and woodwind equally excellent.
Manze knew how to impart movement character once more, this time for the finale: emphatically a ‘Haydn finale’. Variety in articulation was always expressive rather than applied for its own, ear-catching sake. Haydn’s tonal map was well communicated too; a modulation could really be heard and felt in musicodramatic terms. Some, though not all, of its twists and turns might have been more theatrically conveyed—but then I might have complained about exaggeration. At any rate, all was present and correct, and Marieke Blankestijn offered Johann Peter Salomon’s violin part with warm understanding. Fletcher prepared well for his moment in the sun—and then: out of nowhere (at least I had not noticed him arrive on stage) Lisiecki played the keyboard part on the piano, which I had noticed moved to the side of the stage rather than disappeared. It was a true coup de théâtre, as well as luxury casting, and had me forget any minor reservations. I left, as I am sure did those on and off stage, with a smile on my face. Haydn, I have no doubt, would have approved and applauded.