The Firebird [1919 Suite]
Concerto in D for Piano (Left-hand) and Orchestra
Scheherazade – Symphonic Suite, Op.35
Andreas Haefliger (piano)
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 22 February, 2014
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
It is said that the best is the enemy of the good. Nobody would claim that the Brussels Philharmonic is quite the best but under Michel Tabachnik, its Music Director since 2008, it is very, very good. This second of three Cadogan Hall concerts was intelligently planned, attracting a full house, and was a pleasure from first note to last. The programme was topped and tailed by Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov – teacher and pupil – in fairy-tale mode, with vivid contrast provided by a quite outstanding performance of Ravel’s Left-Hand Concerto.
Stravinsky’s original Firebird score of 1910 required what he described as a “wastefully large” orchestra. There are three Suites from the ballet, those of 1919 and 1945 using smaller forces. It was clear from the bass opening that there was an impressive weight to the Brussels string sound. However, perhaps the most interesting aspect were the timbres of the other instruments, with a hint of vibrato from the secure first horn and an eloquently francophone bassoon in the ‘Berceuse’. This kind of regional distinctiveness is a welcome antidote to the pervasive blandness by some high-profile orchestras. The ‘Infernal Dance’ and the final apotheosis packed a formidable punch.
Ravel’s Left-Hand Concerto was commissioned by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in the First World War. Andreas Haefliger, born into a well-known Swiss musical family but growing-up in Germany, is best known as a classical pianist. He might be thought miscast in Ravel. Wrong. He brought sensitivity and a kaleidoscopic range of tone-colour to the quieter sections such as the extended cadenza, and a weight and authority elsewhere that was wholly apt so as to be an equal partner with the orchestra in full cry.
Scheherazade received a performance that brought back the joy of its first discovery, rather like Proust dipping the Madeleine in the tea and inadvertently recovering the past. Amongst this account’s particular virtues were the quality of the string sound – beautifully integrated using exactly the same amount of bow – the opening of ‘The Young Prince and the Young Princess’ was quite magical in its tenderness and the work’s climaxes contained a remarkable weight of sound – and Otto Derolez gave us a distinctive account of the narrative solo violin part, Scheherazade herself stealing in gently after the work’s arresting brass opening, and constantly interacting with the other players, notably the first cello and the characterful woodwind soloists including a breathy French-sounding flute.
There was an encore in the form of that ubiquitous Brahms Hungarian Dance No.1 (as orchestrated by the composer) but for one given with subtlety and affection. Come to think of it Wittgenstein’s godfather was none other than Brahms!