Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor, K491 Strauss
Eine alpensinfonie, Op.64
Alfred Brendel (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
LSO/Haitink Alfred Brendel – Mozart & Richard Strauss [An Alpine Symphony]
Sunday, June 08, 2008 Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by Nick Breckenfield
Two honorary knights were reunited in the Barbican Hall: Bernard Haitink and, making his farewell performances in the venue, Alfred Brendel.
Having first worked together much earlier in their careers – they recorded the Liszt and Beethoven Piano Concertos when Haitink was at the helm of the London Philharmonic – they are now in their late 70s and this final reuniting was one to cherish, resulting in a peerless performance of Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto, aristocratic and nuanced in a definitively non-period performance by the London Symphony Orchestra.
There was an appropriate slimming down of forces – 10-8-6-4-3 in the strings – and antiphonal violins with cellos and double basses to Haitink’s left (perhaps the period revolution has had its effect) but the playing-style matched Brendel’s traditional approach, with Haitink singling out the wind section for a separate bow at the end.
Brendel’s unfussy, clearly articulated way with Mozart (sometimes together with his vocalise accompaniment) has had no need to change over the years, and this most refined of concertos became a perfect valedictory work for the Barbican Hall (although he returns to Mozart – No.9 (K271), Jeunehomme – for his farewell concerto, conducted by Charles Mackerras, with the Philharmonia on 12 October at the Royal Festival Hall and, finally, with the Vienna Philharmonic on 17 and 18 December). Brendel’s matchless pianism will be sorely missed and fondly remembered. There are of course, recordings: having recorded a complete Mozart cycle with Sir Neville Marriner, Brendel returned to a clutch of Mozart concertos with Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, of which the C minor was on the first release – although that is nearly a decade ago.
After the warm, extended applause saying goodbye to Brendel, the Barbican Hall platform was tripled in players for one of the greatest travelogues – Richard Strauss’s extraordinarily vivid depiction of an Alpine hike. Haitink is one of the most assured Straussians and his Concertgebouw recording of Eine Alpensinfonie (over two decades ago) was immediately recognised as a classic. With microphones out for this performance one certainly hopes there will be a recording for LSO Live.
After Gergiev’s accounts of Mahler, it was good to hear the LSO respond to Haitink’s much subtler conducting that sometimes can reveal so much more, without losing a thrilling overall sweep. Here, even without off-stage horns and brass for the hunters’ fanfares (those parts played by the ‘normal’ brass contingent), everything was expertly placed, the soundscape becoming the Alpine landscape, even if the glockenspiel was extraordinarily loud.
Emerging from and descending into a sonorous darkness, Haitink and his players were responsive to every drama in the piece, but perhaps most impressive in both Strauss’s score and this performance were the parts of utmost stillness, particularly after the summit has been reached and the oboe, with hardly any accompaniment, intones the rapt ‘Elegy’ that forms the emotional centre of the work. This held its own against the noisier incidents on either side, including the thunderstorm that catches the hikers on their descent.
Concert played again on Tuesday 10 June
Haitink conducts the LSO in Mozart and Richard Strauss on 15 & 17 June