Beethoven & Bruckner

Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Symphony No.7 in E [Nowak Edition]

Philharmonia Orchestra
Ian Brown (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 31 March, 2006
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Ian Brown is probably best known as the redoubtable pianist of the Nash Ensemble, a wonderfully illuminating musician in that role. He has a diverse career outside of his Nash commitments – as a conductor, solo pianist, accompanist, and professor.

Having stood to conduct the lengthy orchestral exposition of the Beethoven (from memory), Brown did little conducting after that, preferring occasional head inclinations or directing gestures, concentrating on the solo part (played from the score) with a disarming simplicity. The moderately paced first movement, with further Romantic slowing, worked a treat; the music, aided by Brown’s barely pedalled, rather dry sound (on a Steinway grand) had time to express itself and ‘sing’, his ‘first among equals’ approach serving only the music.

In the context of this time-taken approach, Brown choosing one of Beethoven’s ‘smaller’ cadenzas was apt (there are three, and this made a nice change to the now-common outsize, flamboyant one) and was just as well-judged as the flowing but very expressive account of the succeeding Largo. The finale lacked scintillation, though – articulate, yes, the ‘jazz’ episode the highpoint, but hanging-fire a tad. Throughout, the Philharmonia Orchestra, led by Melina Mendozzi, and nearly at full strength (six double basses), was a model of chamber music input and unanimity.

Cadogan Hall, for all its inviting interior and immediate sound, does have a threshold, and this Bruckner symphony slightly crossed it. From 14 first violins to 6 double basses, the Philharmonia was as ‘numerical’ as it could be in this venue, and accredited principal players were all in place, but the biggest climaxes were too loud and brass-dominated, strings swamped. In addition, an extra trumpet and trombone (making four of each) were employed (if not given a mention in the programme’s listing of personnel), and although used sparingly, presumably as ‘bumpers’, the ‘normal’ brass contingent was already in need of being restrained.

This was a pity, for allowing some lack of polish (rehearsal was no doubt ‘on the day’), there was much to admire in both Brown’s interpretation and the Philharmonia’s assured response. Brown, conducting from memory, and with easeful and lucid directions, had the measure of the symphony across its whole. An expressive and lyrical account, tempos were unerringly convincing as were relationships between them (especially so in the Adagio and the Scherzo and Trio). Everything that flautist Kenneth Smith and oboist Gordon Hunt played carried expressive significance, and the silky-smooth Wagner tubas were especially impressive.

The programme didn’t identify the Edition used (no more than it did the date of the concert!) and as it was Nowak this meant the dubious percussion at the Adagio’s climax (triangle inaudible though). An informed comment heard before the concert that Ian Brown is “one of the great chamber music pianists”, which he is, can now be supplemented by praising Brown as an assured and perceptive conductor.

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