LPO/Masur – Bringing Brahms to Life (4 October)

Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15
Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90

Lars Vogt (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Kurt Masur

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 4 October, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

For Kurt Masur’s second leg of his season-opening Brahms cycle, the initially announced order of the concert was reversed, so we had the more usual concerto-symphony formation than the surprising, but not necessarily outrageous symphony-concerto layout (given these particular pieces). After all, the Third Symphony is the only one of Brahms’s that ends quietly and the First Piano Concerto (listed in the programme erroneously as Op.1) ends with great excitement that can easily carry the balance of a programme at the end of a concert. And Lars Vogt’s performance certainly was ardent and persuasive enough to have come at the end. As it was, the almost-full audience roared its approval at half-time in recognition of a reading both urgent and cohesive. A few slips of the digits in the final movement aside, Vogt was not only accurate but on top of the technical difficulties and the work’s the emotional trajectory.

I have always found the opening theme almost ’unmusical.’ Its angular muscularity, pounded out, is full of anger – Brahms tortured by Schumann’s madness and death, perhaps – and the miracle of the first movement is how much music Brahms is able to make from such an arid idea. Masur and Vogt had me thinking again, not that this performance was without brutal force – Vogt’s opening flourishes of the development were almost shocking and the piano sounded louder than I think I’ve ever heard the instrument played in the hall.

The whole was full of details that seemed to register for the first time perhaps because of Masur’s modest forces: there were only 65 players on stage in addition to Vogt (six double basses to 14 first violins, pairs of woodwinds, four horns, two trumpets and timpani). There was clarity in his approach that belies the ’old German tradition’ of muddied textures, and the performance reaped the benefits, from the delicacy of the slow movement to the helter-skelter finale. Exhilarating and memorable.

Masur expanded the strings (eight double basses to 16 first violins), and Brahms added a double bassoon and three trombones for the symphony. As in the first concert, most of the wind principals changed, as did the horns – Richard Bissell replacing Nicholas Busch – and we were presented with a robust performance of what might be considered the “Cinderella” of the Brahms canon. I always forget how innovative this work is, and Masur played it for all it is worth, bringing out mercurial qualities, vast changes from delicacy to raw power and the allusions to Schumann that seem more present here than in Brahms’s other three symphonies. Masur likes his horns and wind to exhibit individual timbres. This might not make the results always beautiful to the ear and Masur conducts music as a living entity: this is music – albeit abstract – that is full of real life, joys, disappointments, laughter and tears; all moods caught in glorious sound by the LPO.

There’s more on Wednesday the 8th, with Garrick Ohlsson essaying the more refined (or will I be proved wrong?) Second Piano Concerto, before culminating in the majestic Fourth Symphony. Don’t miss it!

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