Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
Hélène Grimaud (piano)
Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Thursday, October 10, 2013
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"To begin at the beginning" is Dylan Thomas’s famous opening to Under Milk Wood. This concert was a musical equivalent since Brahms’s First Piano Concerto was initially conceived as a sonata for two pianos, then reluctantly recast at Joachim’s suggestion as a symphony and only later became a concerto. On this occasion therefore we got Brahms’s very first attempt at a symphony, save for the Opus 11 Serenade, and then the real thing.
Andris Nelsons’s Brahms cycle – numerous concerts over several months in London and elsewhere – is the centrepiece of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s current London season, so it was a major blow when, at short notice, he was obliged to cancel the first two London concerts (as well as the remaining performances of Elektra at Covent Garden) on health grounds. The Finn, Hannu Lintu, recently appointed Chief Conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and a protégé of Jorma Panula, stepped into the breach and did a creditable job.
The Piano Concerto was however a disappointment. For all its rugged grandeur it is far from a sure-fire success, needing a very assured hand on the tiller (Joachim greeted Brahms’s first clumsy attempts at orchestration with outbursts of laughter). For all the sound and fury, Hannu Lintu failed to drive the opening movement’s Maestoso tutti forward, tension inadequately sustained in the quieter central section and the music quickly losing momentum. Lacking depth and amplitude to her piano sound, Hélène Grimaud is at a disadvantage in passages such as the first movement’s thunderous double octaves. Her pliant first entry had one thinking of Schumannesque fantasy rather than the austere rigour of Bach and her persistent spreading of chords in the poco più moderato second subject came to sound irritatingly mannered. The solo horn, marked marcato ma dolce, can seldom have sounded more reticent. The slow movement, more andante than adagio at the outset, fared only slightly better, and there was little magic to that moment where the clarinets switch briefly to the major before subsiding back to minor-key introspection. There was plenty of forcefulness in the finale but this was undermined by a fast tempo which was hardly Allegro non troppo; in compensation though there was a distinctly grazioso quality to the contrasting sections and the strings’ fugal passage had a welcome Mendelssohnian delicacy.
Very much better followed with the First Symphony, not the most subtle of readings and antiphonal violins would have been preferable but at least it was well played, catching the music’s scale. Lintu adopted sensible tempos avoiding some of the over-emphasis which can dog this music and paid particular attention to inner parts. It also got better as it progressed, the last two movements coming off particularly well. Yet in the first movement especially there was insufficient distinction made between f and ff, and in the slow movement Lintu rather overplayed his hand, trying to give it an emotional weight that would have been more in place in the Second and Fourth Symphonies and the duet for oboe and clarinet was somewhat prosaic. Thereafter things got consistently better with the third movement Allegretto taken very slightly slower than usual, catching its dolce quality, and a rich-toned finale culminating in a trombone chorale that avoided the usual slamming on of brakes in favour of a more subtle holding back.