Late Brahms – LPO/Masur (8 October)

Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98

Garrick Ohlsson (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Kurt Masur

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 8 October, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Bringing his season-opening Brahms cycle to a close, Kurt Masur here didn’t recapture the splendours of earlier highlights (symphonies 2 and 3 and the D minor piano concerto), although there was much to enjoy.

The lean-sized orchestra (no more than 70 players for the symphony) characterised clean lines, eschewing the normal criticism of German romanticism and the old conducting tradition of it. Masur is as clear-sited in his musical map-reading as in the clarity he demands from his instrumentalists and, architecturally, these were handsome performances, a wayward up-beat to the opening movement of the Fourth Symphony aside.

Held, by Masur’s left hand, high aloft, this beat unfortunately unsettled the orchestra and the movement never quite achieved an even keel, although the resultant touch of queasiness heightened Brahms’s wicked sense of rhythm (where phrases start on awkwardly stressed beats), and thus – perhaps perversely – showed off the composer’s innovative style better than ever. Things settled in the remaining movements, which had its desired cumulative effect, so that Brahms’s use of the archaic passacaglia form in the finale underpinned a seething musical power, leaving players and audience alike gasping with exhilaration.

Garrick Ohlsson’s performance of the Second Piano Concerto began well (a husky horn solo from Richard Bissell – his timbre, quite distinct, adding a throat-catching nostalgia to the opening bars), but in the frenetic passages Ohlsson was content at stabbing the keys rather than searching out the music. There was power a-plenty, and it was good to be reminded that the second concerto isn’t a genial walk-in-the-park compared to its predecessor but, at times, we seemed to be on a forced march!

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