BBC Symphony Orchestra/Bělohlávek – Bruckner’s Romantic Symphony & Leif Ove Andsnes plays Rachmaninov

Piano Concerto No.3 in D minor, Op.30
Symphony No.4 in E flat (Romantic) [1880 version, edited Nowak]

Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 12 October, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The BBC Symphony Orchestra got into its 2011-12 stride uncharacteristically with two romantic titans, heart-on-sleeve Rachmaninov and chastely passionate Bruckner.

Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto was served all the better for being kept on a fairly tight rein by Bělohlávek and Leif Ove Andsnes – there was no thrashing about in histrionic rhapsodising, and the result was electrifying. Andsnes is a remarkable pianist, and remarkably consistent in terms of the quality of his musicianship – over the years, his concerts have never disappointed, and even if you don’t wholly share his passion for the music of his compatriot Grieg, his enthusiasm is infectious. There is a stillness at the heart of his performing style that gives the music wings, and in this grandest of piano concertos, this meant clarity of playing and a far-sighted vision of the piece, coupled with a lithe sense of rubato to add elements of surprise and emphasis to the music’s thrust, and an unfailing rightness of pace and momentum. The two mighty cadenzas sprang heroically out of Rachmaninov’s maelstrom of ideas, launched by Andsnes’s discreet but lethally effective virtuosity. Bělohlávek, too, was exceptionally astute over the rapport between piano and orchestra, which delivered some fine moments. This was a performance that worked on so many different levels, not just for Andsnes’s abundant brilliance but also for his finely honed, intelligent musicianship.

There has been some magnificent Bruckner in London this week (the Fifth with Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, twice), and Bělohlávek and the ‘Romantic’ Symphony did not let the side down. Indeed, as the audience was drawn into Bruckner’s grand, benign landscape, it was obvious that Bělohlávek had the measure of what, for many people, is the most approachable of the symphonies – although why the equally beautiful, comparatively short Sixth isn’t as popular is a mystery. Charm is not a word you’d normally apply to Bruckner, but the Fourth has a gently shimmering ecstasy, the sort of magic that permeates Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ or Schubert’s ‘Great’, which was working its spell from the opening misty horn call. Bělohlávek let the music unfold as though there were all the time in the world and opened out Bruckner’s untroubled, majestic vistas with a sure, unhurried hand. This mood of wonder continued into the more enclosed, darker tone of the slow movement, Bělohlávek plying the melodic wealth with subtly defined character and tenderness, moving the lovely viola tune into the light for a moment of awesome epiphany. Despite this and the robustly bucolic scherzo, the finale still remains a problematic movement (for the composer – hence the revisions – as well as for the listener), the musical equivalent of searching for the source of the Nile, not knowing whether you’re on the main river or a tributary. Bělohlávek made more sense of it than I’ve heard in a long time, and for once the coda didn’t come as a surprise, greatly helped by luminous, generous playing from the BBCSO.

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