Grimaud & Wolff

Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

Hélène Grimaud (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Hugh Wolff

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 10 June, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

In recent seasons Wolfgang Sawallisch cancellations have sadly become all-too-frequent as far as the Philharmonia Orchestra is concerned. Hopefully the Orchestra will continue to stand loyally by him – and he will, once again, conduct in London.

Following Sawallisch’s cancellation, for a pair of concerts celebrating his 80th-birthday last year, Maurizio Pollini did likewise. They say every cloud has a silver lining – enter Hélène Grimaud. Her performance of Brahms’s D minor concerto was often extraordinary. She met a significant challenge of the concerto: there was never any doubt that this was a life and death experience – such things are never comfortable and this was no exception, but the rough edges only served to confirm the work’s stature. Grimaud, an intensely physical and emotional player, unearthed unexpected moments of gentleness and repose, as if withdrawing momentarily from the first movement’s titanic struggle, the movement’s spacious tempo convincingly majestic. And there was no lack of power when needed; it was simply that Grimaud’s vision was informed by an intensely feminine sensibility. The slow movement, the work’s beating heart, was taken quite flowingly but succeeded in plumbing rare depths of introspection; its very stillness rightly threw the volatile turbulence of the outer movements into the sharpest relief.

The orchestra’s contribution – founded on just six double basses, Hugh Wolff pertinently sitting the violin sections antiphonally – was also outstanding. Wolff’s occasionally jerky stick technique can mitigate smooth ensemble (he beat the first movement in two rather than six) – but in this instance the interests of the concerto were well served, its angularities and tensions played up. Grimaud and Wolff gave an involving, revealing and rewarding performance.

The Beethoven also had roughness, especially at the outset, and was marred by frequently overloud brass and timpani – the score specifies two horns and two trumpets; here there were four horns and three trumpets. This was though a real performance – with outer-movement repeats in place but, curiously, not in the Trio second time round – which commanded respect.

The first movement Vivace had a distinctive lilting quality, care taken to clarify semiquavers against triplets, and the larger paragraphs were well attended to, avoiding hard-driven relentlessness. With the march-like Allegretto taken at a flowing speed, dynamics unexaggerated, Wolff avoided making the movement overblown. The scherzo was taken at a speed that allowed real weight; the trio section, rightly flowing, was beautifully integrated. The finale was also the better for a tempo less headlong than normal, which allowed a snap to the main theme. Beethoven’s sf, ff and (rare) fff markings were clearly observed; and tension was maintained, such as the lead-in to the final pages, which can sag.

Wolfgang Sawallisch should also have been conducting the Philharmonia on the 17th; Walter Weller now takes his place for an unchanged programme.

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