Wednesday, 12 October 2011

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Leif Ove Andsnes, Jiří Bělohlávek, Barbican, 12 October 11

Rachmaninov, Bruckner: BBC Symphony Orchestra, Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), Jiří Bělohlávek (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 12.10.11 (Gdn)
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto no.3
Bruckner: Symphony no.4

An inauspicious start, I'm afraid, to the BBC SO's winter season. The two works on the programme make an interesting coupling, similar in scale and both relying on their memorable opening phrases for their identity and continuing popularity. But neither was ideal for this evening's performers, and given the top quality performances of both that are regularly offered to London audiences, the deficiencies were glaring.
Leif Ove Andsnes has apparently just recorded Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto for the second time. He certainly has all the notes in is grasp, and the sheer control that he exerts on this virtuoso work marks him out as one of the great piano technicians of our time. But this evening the piece just didn't add up. The piano was regularly subsumed by the orchestra. It was difficult to tell exactly why this was. Among concert soloists, pianists are usually the first to complain about the dead acoustic of the Barbican Hall. But earlier this year I was here was for a Mozart concerto played by Mitsuko Uchida, one of the gentlest pianists on the circuit, and she managed to project her solo lines with no problems at all. Andsnes has not played the Barbican as often as she has, so perhaps he needs a little more time to accustom himself to the hall's acoustical deficiencies.
A more serious problem though, at least for me, was his dry, matter-of-fact approach to this, perhaps the most ebullient of Romantic piano concertos. His pedalling was on the stingy side, and while there was rubato in his phrasing, it felt unnatural and forced, as if he was only moving from his chosen tempos under duress.
The audience loved it though, and I shared their admiration for the sheer technical accomplishment of the performance. Perhaps this is a modern way of playing Rachmaninov, shorn of the excesses of previous generations. Andsnes certainly looked up-to-the-minute, with his sharp suit and slick haircut. But if this is what today's Rachmaninov sounds like, then I'm for the old-fashioned kind, and I suspect many others are too.
I had hoped that coming to Bělohlávek's Bruckner 4 this evening would compensate for having missed Abbado's Bruckner 5 last night, which by all accounts was as good as his VPO recording of the work: easily one of the finest Bruckner interpretations on disc. Sadly, it was not to be. Neither Bělohlávek nor the BBC SO are known for their Bruckner interpretations. There is no reason why Bruckner should be a specialist area, but his music does need to fit into an established, or at least long-standing tradition of performance. Tonight's performance of the 4th Symphony failed on many levels, although I'm bound to distinguish my subjective opinions on Bělohlávek's reading, which others may disagree with, from my more objective observations on the orchestral playing, which was shaky by anybody's standards.
Bělohlávek did at least present a coherent and thought-out reading of the work. He emphasises the flow of the music over atmosphere in the quiet passages or grandeur in the louder ones. That allows him to demonstrate the classical order of the music, the legacy of Haydn and Schubert that other conductors often miss. But atmosphere and grandeur are important too, and the solemnity of the music, especially in the first movement, is all to easily trivialised through fast tempos, cursory rubato and unsympathetic phrasing.
All this may have worked out if it wasn't for the ensemble problems in the orchestra. To their credit, every section played with an elegant tone (mostly), and met the stylistic demands the conductor made of them. But the ensemble in every section was problematic. The strings had numerous tuning issues. The woodwind struggled to play together and never reached any agreement on dynamics. Worst of all was the brass. A split in the second phrase of the horn solo at the opening was an omen of things to come. The horns and trumpets are regularly required to play in unison or hockets, and there wasn't a single instance where that actually worked. Bělohlávek obviously wanted them to turn it up to 11 for the development and coda climaxes of the first movement, but every time they overblew and the sound deteriorated.
Under-rehearsal may have been the problem. The difference between the opening of the scherzo and the Da Capo reprise was astonishing. It was as if the orchestra was sight reading the first time round, but performing it for real the second. In fact, this reprise in the Scherzo marked a change of fortunes for the performance as a whole, and the finale that followed was easily the best part of the concert. Given his understanding of Czech folk music, at least as it appears in orchestral music, it was surprising that Bělohlávek couldn't get the rustic feel of the Andante movement to work out. But similar passages in the finale were much better. The louder passages also benefited from better brass playing, although it still wasn't perfect.
On balance, it is probably just as well that I wasn't at the Festival Hall last night for Abbado's Bruckner 5; the comparison between that and this would probably have been too galling even to contemplate. However, I was at the Barbican in June for Haitink's Bruckner 4 with the LSO. That performance set the bar about as high as it will go. This one wasn't even close.
Gavin Dixon

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