Ax/OAE/Norrington – Emperor Prometheus (10 February)

Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, Op.43
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)

Emanuel Ax (fortepiano)

Oliver Cotton (narrator)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Roger Norrington

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 10 February, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The second instalment of the OAE’s Beethoven piano concerto cycle included the very rarely performed ballet score The Creatures of Prometheus, given nearly complete; and the transfer from the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the OAE’s usual residence, to the Festival Hall found this top-flight orchestra (45 players) playing Beethoven’s grandest concerto, Emanuel Ax using a Conrad Graf fortepiano, in a full-size hall at maximum voltage – thus the OAE were competing on equal terms with conventional performances.

In the concerto the results were superb, a fleet performance that never felt rushed. In the past one has felt that Norrington relishing his role as agent provocateur has brought perverse musical decisions, threadbare phrasing and unsustainable speeds chief amongst them. Here, Norrington buckled down to business, no eccentricities, and simply got on with it, much to the music’s benefit, although the Prometheus overture’s extreme speed threatened to run the music away.

The first surprise in the concerto was the equality of the battle between Ax’s fortepiano and the orchestra; the next was the sheer power of the orchestral sound in the concerto’s opening tutti, the climax of which struck one with as much force as several modern-orchestra performances. Ax is a great chamber player and throughout this performance, such was the interplay between soloist and winds, there was a very real sense of the concerto as chamber music writ large; an act of some courage on Ax’s part since the actual mechanism of a Graf can be no easy thing to handle.

Particularly memorable was much of the quieter playing where the actual timbre of the fortepiano allowed orchestral detail to shine through, the lead back from the first movement cadenza having a particular magic. The flowing slow movement – somewhat disrupted by obtrusive coughs – was stripped of several layers of sentimentality, whilst the link into the last movement was left suspended in mid-air, its penultimate phrase held breathless for a fraction longer than usual. In the finale the timbre of the instrument’s upper register again worked to Ax’s advantage in enabling him to vary the characterisation of the various episodes. At the close the drumbeats assumed a quiet insistence unique in my experience.

Prometheus’s added narration from the actor Oliver Cotton was overloud, overlong and replete with current references (e.g. “Education, Education, Education”), which disrupted progress. One hopes this is not a trend – recently there were distended theatrics before a LSO performance of The Lark Ascending. As for Beethoven’s music itself, it has moments of fascination – the Storm as predecessor to the Pastoral’s, the Adagio (No.5) with harp (the only time Beethoven used the instrument) which touches on deeper things and was graced with superb playing from bassoon and flute, and the final, celebratory dance that ushers in the theme to be made famous in the Eroica’s finale. Otherwise, the music is pleasant enough if not Grade 1 Beethoven, though there was no gainsaying the Grade 1 performance it received.

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