Mystère de linstant Bartók
Piano Concerto No.3 Beethoven
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92
Hélène Grimaud (piano)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe
COE Saraste Grimaud
Thursday, October 16, 2003 Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed by Douglas Cooksey
The first half of this concert was the musical equivalent of cross-dressing, juxtaposing Henri Dutilleuxs Mystère de linstant a sort of French homage to Bartóks Music for strings, percussion and celesta (the echoes of Hungary reinforced by a prominent cimbalom part) and Bartóks Third Piano Concerto performed by Hélène Grimaud, Frances finest young pianist (albeit currently domiciled in the States). Curiously, both works contain a seminal moment for the gong.
The Chamber Orchestra of Europe is a remarkable body both technically and in terms of collective musicianship. In the Dutilleux, both technique and musicality were needed in abundance. This is extraordinarily demanding music with strings often playing divisi at the limits of their register. The ten short sections of Mystère de linstant is music of real quality and passion. Saraste and the COE had internalised the music, surmounting its considerable difficulties with ease and producing playing of sensitivity, power and spontaneity.
Next we arrived in the real Hungary via the United States, since Bartók wrote the Third Concerto in the USA at the very end of his life in 1945. (Unexpectedly I once chanced on his signed photograph on the wall of a hotel in Asheville, North Carolina where he had been staying shortly before his death.) He left the concerto incomplete (the last 17 bars contributed by his friend Tibór Sérly). There is a curious dichotomy about this concerto written under the shadow of death because it is both music of life-affirming power and deep inner sadness, the music of a man, one of the great pianists, about to die in exile.
Here it received a quite electrifying performance that made no attempt to treat the concerto as popular or accessible, but took it absolutely head-on as the great and uncompromising work it undoubtedly is. If that sounds daunting, the reality was anything but. It certainly helped having the COEs support; the dovetailing of piano and wind at the close of the first movement was a miracle of subtle shading. Above all, Grimauds playing had a propulsive rhythmic energy and conviction, as well as encompassing the stillness and depth at the slow movement. Following a well-deserved ovation Grimaud graced us with two encores, both Rachmaninov Preludes.
Beethoven 7 received a clean-as-a-whistle performance, dynamic and spirited. With minimal string vibrato and drums instead of timpani, Saraste and the COE had absorbed the lessons of the authentic movement. Tempos are all-important in this work. All four movements were taken swiftly, especially the Allegretto second movement, the light string-sound allowing the important viola line to sing easefully, and the Presto third, the latter graced by a Trio particularly well integrated. The outer movements (repeat taken in the first) were cannily paced, quick but not so much as to hinder clean articulation.
Sarastes was a youthful performance and why not perhaps the only thing lacking being that control and variation of long-term tensions, which marks out the very greatest performances.