LPO/Langrée Nicholas Angelich – Brahms & Tchaikovsky

Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64

Nicholas Angelich (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Louis Langrée

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 1 April, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Nicholas Angelich. Photograph: EMI ClassicsWhilst it may make for good box-office to programme two such major works in one concert, in artistic terms it seldom pays dividends. Instead of the sum being greater than the parts, the converse usually seems to be the case with one or other work generally suffering by comparison with the other, either because of the juxtaposition or, as in this case, simply because one performance is very much preferable to the other.

Etiquette and psychology are two words seldom mentioned in reviews. However, with the London Philharmonic tuned and ready, there was an exceptionally long pause before the emergence of soloist and conductor. Leaving aside any question of old-fashioned courtesy, this was hardly good psychology since the Brahms concerto opens with a horn solo and the player concerned must suffer a degree of nerves, rather like a patient waiting for the arrival of a dentist with the drill. In fact in this instance the first horn – Roger Montgomery – coped reasonably well although, after such a long wait, he did sound a little apprehensive. On etiquette one is constantly surprised, as happened on this occasion, at soloists who on entry fail to shake the leader’s hand.

This was Brahms at his most lumpen. With the dialogue with the horn out the way Nicholas Angelich attacked the opening cadenza with such unvarying brute force that there was nothing left for the marked crescendo into the orchestral tutti. Similarly, Louis Langrée failed to notice that the tutti‘s initial dynamic is simply forte and that the first ff happens seven bars in. So it continued.

Louis Langrée It is frequently said that, despite its scale, Brahms Second Piano Concerto is chamber music writ large. In this performance his many detailed instructions, più dolce, mezzo piano espressivo, mezzo piano legato mostly went for very little and there was not much evidence of chamber-music interplay with the orchestra; any dynamic below forte was like sighting an endangered species. To compound matters, Angelich’s brittle sound lacked depth, sounding merely clangourous. Langrée and the orchestra followed dutifully, often fractionally behind the beat, and although there were moments of sensitivity – the clarinet’s lead-back to the cello tune in the slow movement and Kristina Blaumane’s handling of the tune itself – they only served to throw into relief what was missing elsewhere. For the most part there was little to relish.

What a difference twenty minutes can make. Having been bludgeoned in Brahms, one did not hold out great expectations for the Tchaikovsky symphony. How welcome to be proved so wrong.

This was a very decent, if not great, performance. There were relatively few of those agogic distortions to which interpreters are prone and tempos throughout were sensibly chosen. Despite a tendency to push too hard and overheat – particularly in the opening movement – Langrée had clearly grasped that this is a great string piece and the LPO strings responded with an unusual degree of fervour; for the most part – other obviously than at the various appearances of the motto theme – the brass preserved a welcome degree of decorum. Best of all were the heartfelt slow movement which breathed with a natural fluidité at its climaxes – a secure horn solo (Montgomery again) and beautifully voiced clarinet epilogue from Nicholas Carpenter adding to its attractions – and the feather-light and elegantly turned waltz which followed.

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