Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15
Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27
François-Frédéric Guy (piano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 5 April, 2005
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Brahms and Rachmaninov do not tend to be ideal complements in the same concert, but the present two works offer an interesting contrast in their outwardly similar progression from darkness to light.
Piotr Anderszewski’s indisposition saw François-Frédéric Guy – highly rated in this repertoire, and having already recorded Brahms’s Second Concerto with Paavo Berglund – take on the Brahms D minor.
Here, the progression comes from an elemental struggle between opposing forces – not least soloist and orchestra – and, in the imposing Maestoso, that sense of struggle was not always fully projected. Tadaaki Otaka’s handling of the opening tutti, serious and thoughtful but emotionally self-contained, set the tone for a reading which convinced more in the intimate reaches of the second main theme than in the tempestuous progress of the central development or the implacable surge of the coda.
Guy is nonetheless a cultured, insightful pianist: his probing of theAdagio’s reticent depths in playing of chamber-like delicacy was tellingly underscored by poised contributions from solo woodwinds. Both here and in the finale, Guy and Otaka shaped the music with a fine appreciation of its formal debt to Beethoven – specifically, his C minor piano concerto in the tonal subtlety and contrapuntal intricacy of the central fugato, and the rhetorical cadenza that is a vital formal link in the movement’s affirmativeoutcome. Thanks to a spirited contribution from Guy, that outcome at least was never in doubt.
Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony came in a reading such as Otaka has made very much his own. Here the progression is governed by pathos that is subjective but never indulgent. The emotional crescendo of the first movement’s introductory Largo – its baleful ‘motto’ pervasive – was powerfully defined, and if the Allegro moderato can yield greater intensity, the long-breathed ascent to the development’s apex was finely shaped. It helped that the orchestral playing was of a quality that brought clarity tothe densest textures: such as also imparted real buoyancy to a less than capricious scherzo, and an appealing sense of fantasy to the trenchant string fugato at its centre.
For all that his leisurely approach risked exposing its longeurs, Otaka found a glowing passion in the Adagio – Timothy Line’s playing of the clarinet melody having the right degree of ‘edge’ so that soulfulness never became sentimentality. The highlight of the finale was an unerringly-judged tapering to near-stasis before the development. Otaka did not try to conceal the movement’s tendency to sprawl, yet his underlying purposefulness in the run-up to the reprise of the ‘big tune’ amply sustained the now-triumphal motto and jubilant close. Whatever its ultimate profundity, Rachmaninov Two has a formal and expressive sophistication conveyed at length in this impressively-played account. And, moreover, perhaps these composers complement each other more productively than might have been thought.