Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90
Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 29 October, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The demands of programming aren’t kind to Brahms’s Third Symphony, the quiet endings to each of its movements too open-ended for climax and triumph. The massively symphonic First Piano Concerto suits that more overt public agenda and was placed after the interval.
Riccardo Chailly’s great gift to Brahms is to show how the composer’s deference to earlier styles irradiates the music and gives it a flexibility entirely at odds with the notion of Brahms the icon of conservative, Teutonic thoroughness, largely conferred on him by his imitators. Chailly’s long view of the Symphony gave it a powerful cohesion that had a direct line to its enigmatic emotional world, full of half-lit nostalgia and acceptance. The spread of strings, antiphonal violins, and with the double basses on the left away from the brass, ensured a separation of sound that was both massive and mobile, and suffused with the Leipzig players’ inimitable fine-grained, light-flecked tone. This robust refinement extended into lean, eloquent wind-playing to die for, and a tiny crack in the horns (in the second movement) served only to focus on their role as the Symphony’s mysterious romantic lead. You can hear the players of the world’s oldest orchestra constantly reviewing their traditions, with the result that their style takes nothing for granted. It’s the perfect vehicle for Chailly’s balance between heart and head, an approach that allowed the listener to expand into the mystery of the Third’s taut and explicit structure – the shortest of the four, No.3 plays Tardis-like games with our perceptions of its stature.
In the first movement, the way Chailly tempered classical formality to enfold the music’s romantic subjectivity heightened rather than suppressed the latter’s expression. A subtle inflection of emphasis in the second stored up a memory to be recaptured in the finale, and the overall mood lingered just long enough in Hansel-and-Gretel shadows to make its mark. In the third, the horn’s lead-back into the reprise of the opening – to paraphrase the beginning of Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier – was “the saddest thing I have ever heard”. Its reluctance to let go initially weighed down the rhythmic urgency of the finale, but dissolved to allow the Elgarian major theme its moments of swaggering uplift. The magic of the coda clinched a magisterial but tender performance of a work that only gives through suggestion, its paradoxical mix of obliqueness and directness perfectly realised by Chailly and his orchestra.
Its puzzling impact was such that it rather undermined the drama of the First Piano Concerto. Here, the balance between heart and head didn’t quite equalise in Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s reading. The pianist’s trademark analytical approach gave this most extrovert of Brahms’s large-scale works a solidity of purpose that didn’t light the blue-touch-paper of surprise, and the soloist’s role wasn’t nearly as characterised as the orchestra’s. His playing in the slow movement became a showcase for overwrought self-expression rather than the benign introversion the Gewandhaus members were coaxing him towards, and it was only in the finale that he achieved Brahms’s Olympian lift-off, alongside some splendidly raw, energised orchestral playing.
- Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for seven days afterwards)
- Final concert on October 30
- Barbican www.barbican.org.uk