Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra/Michel Tabachnik at Cadogan Hall – Egmont, La mer, Boléro – Markus Groh plays Bartók

Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Piano Concerto No.3
La mer – three symphonic sketches

Markus Groh (piano)

Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra
Michel Tabachnik

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 8 March, 2013
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Michel Tabachnik. Photograph: Jean-Bapitste MillotNow that London’s two main concert halls rarely play host to international orchestras other than an élite few, the Zurich International Concert Series at Cadogan Hall performs a particularly valuable function by enabling us to hear some extremely good lesser-known groups under their regular conductors. This concert by the Brussels Philharmonic under Michel Tabachnik (born 1942) was also stimulating. Tabachnik was assistant to Pierre Boulez during his BBC Symphony Orchestra years and invited by Karajan to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic.

The Egmont Overture is a natural choice for a Belgian orchestra since it deals with the Flemish uprising against the Spanish following Count Egmont’s execution and eventual liberation from Spanish rule. It is also worth bearing in mind the Flemish origins of Beethoven’s own family. What was immediately clear was a finely balanced string section, the opening sarabande impressive in its weight with a very present double bass section; this was patient and appropriately rough hewn playing, the coda bringing a fine blaze.

Markus Groh. Photograph: Susesch BayatWritten in the last year of his life during his American exile for his wife, the pianist Ditta Pásztory, Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto is the composer at his most accessible. In 1944 Bartók spent time in North Carolina (I once found a signed photograph of him on the wall of the Grove Park Hotel in Asheville) and in the midst of the slow movement’s night-music comes the cry of the Baltimore oriole and various warblers which he had notated whilst staying there. Markus Groh made an impressive soloist, his massive hands and fluent playing making light of Bartók’s demands and there was a notably close rapport with the orchestra. The first movement’s quizzical ending, almost a question mark, was particularly well-timed and the pianist’s plangent little duet with the oboe in the slow movement sounded Coplandesque in its innocence.

La mer was the antithesis of those performances which treat the work as a showpiece. Uniquely the three movements seemed to exist as a continuum, the ocean’s rapidly changing moods experienced from a single vantage point. This performance had a distinctly authentic fluidité, so that underlying it all one sensed Nature’s majestic raw power and unpredictability. With minimal fuss Tabachnik, a modestly benign presence, elicited total co-operation from his players – how often does one see a string section using every centimetre of bow – and his care for quality of sound brought rich rewards, notably Wouter van der Eynde’s authentically French-sounding flute at the close of ‘Jeux de vagues’ and the subtle horn quartet (elsewhere occasionally fallible) before the high sustained violins in ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’. The pounding bass drum was for once truly visceral in its impact.

Boléro brought some magically French-sounding solos from the wind principals and for once gave the lie to Ravel’s ironic comment that Boléro is “orchestration without music”. Played like this – cellos enthusiastically thrumming their accompaniment and with wonderfully sleazy contributions from saxophone and trombone – it was absolutely thrilling. The encore – Brahms’s First Hungarian Dance – was at once affectionate and remarkable in its depth of string sound.

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