Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1
Bruckner: Symphony No. 9
Lars Vogt (piano), Mariss Jansons (conductor), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Barbican, London, 5.4.14
The Concertgebouw Orchestra ended their three concert residency at the Barbican with some luxurious Beethoven followed by some propulsive Bruckner. Mariss Jansons, as ever, gave distinctive readings, energetic and carefully shaped, with every detail of the scores put to the service of the bigger picture. That worked better in the Beethoven than the Bruckner, and although the concerto is very much the slighter work, it offered the greater enjoyment and interest this evening.
Lars Vogt is the ideal pianist for the Concertgebouw. Like the orchestra, his Classical and Romantic repertoire interpretations are all about natural, unaffected expression underpinned by a fluent and undemonstrative virtuosity. As the orchestra began the exposition, the players sounded strangely relaxed. There was a laid-back feeling about the sound production and phrasing. One consequence was poor ensemble, especially in the violins, but the compensation was an unhurried and satisfyingly warm orchestral tone. In fact, the Concertgebouw sound is more sophisticated and rich than first impressions suggest. There is a gritty, sinewy undertone to the string textures that complements the general roundness of tone, adding focus and bite when required.
Similarly, Vogt’s playing is characterised by a generally lyrical and mellow legato, but regularly punctuated by heavily accented notes or phrases. He has a muscular and definite touch; he offers plenty of nuance while always avoiding ambiguity. Combined with the rich, Romantic Concertgebouw sound, the result was old-fashioned Beethoven, unencumbered by even the vaguest notion of period performance practice: this is how the Concertgebouw has performed Beethoven since the 19th century, so why change now?
The Bruckner, by contrast, was very different even from the most recent performances the orchestra has given of his symphonies in the UK. Bernard Haitink is the most recent conductor to take up the Concertgebouw’s Bruckner traditions and perpetuate them without subjecting them to any radical reinterpretations. Mariss Jansons, though, is a different kind of conductor. His readings of the great Romantic symphonies, from Schumann to Shostakovich, have always been about focus and direction, lyrical yes, but with all the music’s expressive apparatus put to the service of structural and dramatic aims. That’s what he did with Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony this evening, and most of it didn’t work at all.
There was little sense of mystery in the introduction, and when the main theme entered, it was fast, heavily accented and lacking in any sense of grandeur. Jansons read the symphony as if it were Brahms, subjugating its diverse musical discourse into a clearly rational, unambiguous form. So, when at the end of the first movement, the heavens open and a radiant chorale is played on the violins in their highest register, it didn’t tear through the earthly discourse as a divine intervention, but merely continued the progress towards the following climax. Tempos in the Scherzo were erratic, to say the least, very fast in the pizzicato at the start, then slowed right down for the bass entry, then suddenly brought back up to tempo when the violins re-entered. Why? I’ve no idea, but it completely destroyed the sense of unstoppable momentum that this passage requires. Even more surprisingly, Jansons pushed the tempos in the Adagio just as hard as he had in the first movement. He is clearly very interested in the ways that tiny melodic cells can link the longer phrases together. So, for example, he will bring out just a three or four note interjection from the woodwinds, and what ought to be a transitional figure or answering phrase suddenly becomes primary thematic material. Every interjection from the Wagner tuba was brought right to the front of the texture, which only went to highlight their suspect tuning. And the climaxes, when he got to each of them, were so exaggerated that the rich colours of the orchestra all but broke up.
All of which was a great shame, especially since under Van Beinum, Jochum, Haitink, even Harnoncourt, the Concertgebouw has shown itself to be one of the truly great Bruckner orchestras. Jansons is clearly a great conductor too, but his strengths lie elsewhere, and this evening the stars only really came into alignment for the first half.