Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83
Beethoven, re-orchestrated Mahler
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 30 October, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
An ‘eroica’ of a piano concerto coupled with Mahler’s changes and additions to Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony.
Maybe with two substantial pieces rubbing shoulders and Mahler’s rescoring of the ‘Eroica’ being the evening’s curiosity, Brahms’s sizeable, four-movement piano concerto became slightly overshadowed, not least because the performance of it, while containing good things, didn’t quite establish itself in the opening two and most imposing movements. The signalling horn solo had poise and, in his opening solo, Leif Ove Andsnes was imperious if less than fully involved. The orchestra played with composure and adroitly followed Vladimir Jurowski’s no-nonsense tread and then his relaxations, yet these fluctuations didn’t quite gel, Andsnes himself giving the impression of being accommodating without ultimate conviction if offering Bachian clarity to Brahms’s extravagant demands, as well as light and shade and finding repose and fire. It was the final two movements that offered the most. Kristina Blaumane bringing eloquence to the cello solo that launches the third movement, and thanks to Jurowski to using antiphonal violins and seating the cellos left-centre, Blaumane was able to offer a sonata-duo with the pianist, surely Brahms’s intention. After this sublime slow movement, its inner-sanctum of expression movingly located, the finale was an insouciant foil, light and sparkling, Andsnes witty and affectionate.
For the Brahms, Jurowski had partitioned-off the two trumpets far-left with the timpani, the four horns integrated with the woodwinds. This was more-or-less the positioning for the ‘Eroica’, the orchestra now greatly expanded to the sort of proportions that Gustav Mahler may well have used when conducting the work. On this occasion, the LPO sported a string sections totalling 68 personnel, ten double basses arranged across the back of the platform. As well, and in accordance with Mahler’s arrangement there were the usual woodwinds in fours (a doubling that is not exclusive to Mahler), four trumpets rather than Beethoven’s prescribed two, six horns instead of three, and the addition of an E-flat clarinet, an instrument that post-dates Beethoven.
The programme note did not inform as to when Mahler undertook this re-scoring, or why, or even mention that Mahler was not the first to emendate aspects of Beethoven’s manuscript, Hans von Bülow for example. It should also be remembered that Mahler was a conductor who composed and that his touching-up of the ‘Eroica’ – and other Beethoven symphonies (as well as Schumann’s four) – was the work of a pragmatic interpreter rather than a composer who thought he knew better, compensating for the increasing size of string sections by bolstering the woodwinds and even introducing new instruments in order to clarify what Beethoven had written. It seems likely that Mahler would have re-scored the ‘Eroica’ early in his career when working in Budapest or, later, Hamburg. Research had suggested that Mahler added two E-flat clarinets and increased the horns to eight, but from Jurowski it was respectively one and six, and one imagines that having booked extra string-players that the whole complement of Mahler’s auxiliaries would therefore have been engaged. For the record, 94 musicians played this particular performance of Mahler’s Eroica. (There were times when one fancied Mahler to have used a piccolo and a contrabassoon.)
Anyone who heard Jurowski conduct the original ‘Eroica’ with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment some years ago will know that he is very sympathetic to ‘authentic’ leanings – both in terms of speeds and timbres; with the LPO he proved himself adept at donning Mahler’s mantle – respecting his individual responses and doing so with persuasion – and with it providing a glorious reminder of what passed for many decades of the last century as accepted Beethoven performance, for here with Jurowski following (presumably) Mahler’s detailed annotation as regards tempo and its fluctuation (but with no portamento, if any is marked), we not only had an insight as to how Mahler might have conducted the ‘Eroica’ but were aware too of interpretative characteristics of Furtwängler, Klemperer and Mengelberg – maybe Nikisch too (if he had recorded more) – but with little sign of Toscanini.
Jurowski set moderate tempos throughout, but there was no lack of tension, a 55-minute performance that omitted (as Mahler directs) the first-movement exposition repeat, which always convinces but is now rare when most conductors are slaves to such matters and seemed cloned to the swift dispatch of this work. It was great to hear the ‘Eroica’ given its own time and space, slowing here and there and getting slower, yet blazing at climaxes – horns and clarinets ‘bells up’. At the symphony’s heart, and also of this performance, is the ‘Funeral March’, here a true ‘dead march’ at this tempo (taking the movement to 18 minutes), bleak, inconsolable, the pinnacle offering a double bass pedal-point and additional timpani notes, the music’s darkness sustained to the end. The scherzo was Klemperer-like in its time-taken point, the horn-dominated (all six) trio playful rather than virtuosic. Jurowski plunged straight into the finale without taking a breath, some loud-soft dynamics sounding effete, mannered even, then, later, staccatos replace long-held notes, following which the curlicues from the E-flat clarinet raised smiles in the country-dance episode. With an unapologetic half-speed apotheosis before the liberating coda, this was an ‘Eroica’ that sounded new-minted, if in many respects familiar from post-Mahler now-long-dead conductors, and very welcome as such, with more to say than many a sprint through this boundary-breaking work ever does.
The day after this London account the LPO and Jurowski departed for a 13-concert European tour during which ‘Mahler’s Eroica’ (presumably with the same number of players) was scheduled to be performed on ten of those occasions.