Friday, 15 June 2012

Pires, LSO/Haitink: Purcell, Mozart, Schubert; Purcell, Mozart, Bruckner

There wasn't much to grab the headlines at these two fine London Symphony Orchestra concerts, one on Sunday and one on Thursday, but a lot to remind one of how a solid, conventional programme can still prove a highly rewarding experience. At least it certainly can with a soloist like Maria João Pires and a conductor like Bernard Haitink, in charge of an alert LSO. Each concert started with an arrangement of Purcell. The D-minor Chacony came first, performed with restraint and discipline by a beefy complement of strings; it was Britten's faithful arrangement, I gather, even though the fact was not acknowledged in the running order. Thursday brought Steven Stucky's 1992 take on the famous Funeral Music for Queen Mary, interestingly refashioned for brass and percussion (including piano and harp). It amplified the work into something effective and visceral--the thudding piano-and-timpani pedal point was a stroke of inspiration--but I was less convinced as it veered off into altogether unexpected territory in the central section.

Pires brought irresistible lightness and instinctive, unforced musical imagination to her two Mozart concertos--the D minor K.466 in the first concert, the A major K.488 in the second--with Haitink providing excellent support, and the LSO winds, especially, on wonderful form. There was controlled drama in the D minor work, too, with the diminutive pianist showing that she can pack a punch, particularly in a beautifully gauged account of Beethoven's cadenza (and here, just for fun, is a great clip of her being surprised in a concert, for one reason or another expecting a different concerto and having to pull up K.466 from the memory bank--'sprong zi in paniek op' indeed). 

The Romanze was delicately done, with some floated, long phrases, too. The same virtues distinguished the A major work, where, if anything, Pires's playing was even more delicate. Her understated interpolations in the barer passages of the Adagio were self-effacing almost to the point of inaudibility--those in favour of such additions would have been kept happy; those not wouldn't have had to much difficulty in filtering them out. But was I alone in wishing she'd assert herself a bit more in the presto finale, where much of the filigree in the piano part was lost?

When it comes to large-scale Austro-German symphonies, Haitink is never anything less than a reliable guide. Here he was a great deal more than that. His Schubert Ninth (on Sunday) might have been a bit hard pressed in the opening movement, but the single-mindedness of his approach brought powerful results in the remarkable Andante, and, with the LSO playing with considerable virtuosity, the Scherzo and Finale ticked along in the pleasing way only this music can--all airy inevitability and breeziness. Bruckner's symphonies are the natural heir to Schubert's 'Great' in particular, adding considerable weight to that work's 'heavenly length'. Haitink's Bruckner is justly famous--even if his Concertgebouw Fifth recently at the Barbican apparently bowled some over and left others cold--and this Seventh was a fine piece of work. Beautifully paced, and with a sobriety to contrast with the fire of Daniel Barenboim's recent RFH account, it nevertheless suffered from the Barbican's cramped acoustic, which made this music teeter over in the climaxes from assertive to aggressive (although I'm perhaps being generous to the players here: I notice a colleague shifts some blame on to them in his review). This did Bruckner's music, redolent of Alpine air and the sort of wholesomeness that was not without some more unpleasant ideological resonances in the 20th century, few favours. With the Vienna Phil, in the, ahem, rather less bright acoustic of the Albert Hall, the conductor's Bruckner 9 at the Proms is certainly something to look forward to.

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