Beethoven
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Shostakovich
Symphony No.4 in C minor, Op.43

Markus Groh (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano
Not exactly an apposite pairing, but effective all the same. Main prizewinner at the 1995 Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels, Markus Groh will be a new pianist to many and, on the basis of tonight’s performance, a capable if undemonstrative one. While he caught the musing, improvisatory tone in the opening movement of Beethoven’s concerto, the tensile emotional quality, which underlies the music’s wayward-seeming tonal logic, eluded him. Interestingly, he seemed most engaged in the probing ’second development’ of the cadenza. The Andante lacked all-important dynamic and expressive contrast, the piano’s trill passage cleanly articulated but far from spellbinding. Pianist and conductor gelled with greater certainty in the finale, with Kent Nagano’s delineating of texture a delight, especially the cello line earthing the piano’s second subject caprice. Indeed, the incidence of instrumental detail was what lingered in the memory. Groh clearly needs time to evolve a perspective on this most affecting of concertos; chamber performance might suit him best at present.
Little heard in its first two decades after rehabilitation, the last twenty years have seen a steady increase in performances and recordings of Shostakovich 4. Justifiably, as this is the great ’might have been’ symphony; not just for Shostakovich, but for the whole evolution of twentieth-century symphonism. Nagano interpreted most of the first movement’s facets with precision and finesse: the strident opening march theme, the achingly Mahlerian second group, the relentless string fugato and ensuing climactic assault, the closing reprise of themes fugitively playing out to extinction - all were expertly ordered, with committed if not galvanic playing from the LSO. Yet here more than anywhere, Shostakovich sets up a symphonic discourse doomed to failure if interpreted as a totality; the constituents need to evolve on the edge of incoherence, which Nagano was unwilling to let happen. The central intermezzo presents no such problems, but needs subtle handling if not to seem a non-event. Much of the movement seemed too loud, notably the would-be expressive second theme, while the shades of Nielsen and Hindemith which flit quizzically across the texture were played for little.
The funereal opening of the Largo seemed initially too earnest, but the brief climax made a thrilling turn to the major, and Nagano adopted just the right pace for the Allegro section: not so fast that its repetitions desynchronise, not so slow that the finely-judged tonal stasis loses its purpose. The central divertissement was well handled, though Nagano could have given the individual sections greater character without undermining momentum. The climactic C major peroration and ensuing retreat into silence are one and the same in expression: Shostakovich offering them as a statement on the uncertain nature of classical tonality to ’tell the truth’ in purely musical terms. He would make the point again at the close of the Fifth Symphony, and in most of its successors.
Never again, however, would - could - it emerge so unequivocally as here. If Nagano didn’t quite convey this realisation, his interpretation as a whole was focused enough to impress itself on the minds of those unfamiliar with the work: and an effective reminder to those already ’in the know’.

 

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