Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23
Symphony No.5 in F, Op.76
Freddy Kempf (piano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 1 October, 2005
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham
For this second CBSO concert of the new season, the indisposition of Vassily Sinaisky brought Walter Weller to the podium and a modified programme which now opened with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. Slow and not a little staid in the outer sections, then moving forward markedly in the “Siegfried”-permeated central sequence, this was not the most inwardly intense performance one is likely to encounter, but a measure of repose allied to some enticing woodwind- and brass-playing made it an affecting one.
Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto found Freddy Kempf in assured if not ideally commanding form. While it does no harm to tone down the grandiloquence of the opening ‘big tune’, the rhetorical nature of the themes that follow tended to be evened out, giving the opening movement a more episodic feel than is ideal. Kempf’s poise in the more rhapsodic passages was unfailing, as was his limpid phrasing in the lengthy cadenza, but the fervour which drives this music forward was often in short supply. A shade detached in its expression, the Andante shone in the central prestissimo, Kempf judging its mercurial wit to perfection; and there was no lack of suavity or drive in a finale which surged intently towards its peroration – soloist and orchestra at one in a triumphal but never histrionic apotheosis.
Interesting that Tchaikovsky’s earliest (excepting the revised Romeo and Juliet) orchestral work to enter the repertoire should have been completed the same year (1875) in which Dvořák composed his Fifth Symphony – the first of the cycle to find wider acceptance, though one would not have thought so given the general lack of performances (not least during the centenary celebrations last year). All credit, then, to Weller for scheduling it (rather than Shostakovich Six), and enabling the orchestra to play the piece for the first time since the fondly-remembered Erich Schmid programmed it in 1981.
Which would be of anecdotal interest were the Fifth not among the most melodically appealing and – save for the Seventh – the most secure formally of Dvořák’s symphonies. Weller misjudged this by omitting the opening Allegro’s exposition repeat, making this sanguine piece seem less substantial than need-be in relation to the finale. What was not lacking was the onward motion of the movement as a whole, Weller especially successful in drawing together the thematic threads of the development and in the gentle affirmation of the coda. He found a vein of gentle pathos with which to characterise the Andante (its main theme redolent of that from Mendelssohn’s Hebrides), and effected a seamlesslink into the scherzo – the most genial and disarming of all such movements in a Dvořák symphony.
The finale has often been criticised in that its unabashed emotional intensity can seem at a remove from what came before. Not here, as Weller encouraged the orchestra to present this extensive but powerfully unified movement in terms of an opening-out of expressive reserves which have previouslyonly been inferred, and giving due weight to the tonal conflict that only finds true resolution in the composer’s most inclusive and uninhibited symphonic conclusion. Weller clearly believes in the work, as was amply demonstrated by the strengths of this account. It confirmed the piece, moreover, as deserving of far more frequent performance.