Windows [LSO Panufnik Young Composers Scheme commission, supported by the Helen Hamlyn Trust: world premiere]
Piano Concerto No.9 in E flat, K271
Symphony No.4 in E flat (Romantic) [1878 score, edited Leopold Nowak, with 1880 finale]
Maria João Pires (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 6 December, 2015
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Mozart and Bruckner together normally make for a good combination. With a soloist of the highest calibre as here in one of Mozart’s finest Piano Concertos and maybe what is maybe Bruckner’s best-loved Symphony, one’s expectations ran high. In reality this was a disappointing concert, marred by some uncharacteristically scrappy playing from the LSO.
The evening started positively enough with the premiere of Windows, a five-minute piece by James Moriarty, a young Londoner accepted onto the LSO Panufnik Young Composers Scheme. Moriarty’s idea is the equivalent of a musical snapshot, a window onto another work which does not yet exist. The intention is to create a kind of mosaic so that one’s ears shift from place to place. The music’s other distinctive feature is its highly individual orchestration – woodwinds only ever play together, as do the strings, and so on. Windows is well-scored if hardly memorable, and received a polished and confident performance.
K271, the first of Mozart’s Piano Concertos to form a regular part of the repertoire, was composed for Victoire Jenamy (1749-1812) née Noverre, her father being a friend of the composer’s. The Concerto is notable for introducing the soloist prior to the tutti. Maria João Pires made a fine recording of it early in her career and now some forty years later she still plays it beautifully, full of light and shade and with a welcome dash of humour. However, the slimmed-down LSO contrived to make heavy weather of it, elegance and finesse in short supply. Best was the slow movement where sombre hues and suppressed intensity are rarely far from the surface. Chopin’s First Concerto had originally been programmed, so as an encore Pires gave us the third of the Opus 9 Nocturnes played with rapt inwardness.
Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony was his first big success when Hans Richter gave its first public performance with the Vienna Philharmonic in February 1881. However its original version was completed in 1874. Bruckner then replaced the Scherzo and Finale and replaced them, and there are numerous editions of the various versions.
Unfortunately, things got off to a bad start – two fluffs in that magical but exposed opening horn solo (marked piano and ausdrucksvoll, not mezzo-forte as here) – and went downhill thereafter, the LSO at its most brazen and hectoring, particularly noticeable in the Barbican Hall’s unforgiving acoustic.
Balances throughout were frequently awry with string-players consistently having to work too hard to make themselves heard and dynamics were generally a couple of notches above what they should be if one is to separate the wood from the trees.
There were beautiful moments, for instance the quiet section at the heart of the first movement which brought an excellent flute contribution from Gareth Davies. In the slow movement the tricky extended viola threnody was played with the kind of security few orchestras can aspire to but then Daniel Harding spoiled matters by jumping the gun at the climax so that it made less of an impact than it can. The Scherzo came across with tremendous force but then lost all impetus in the Trio; it sagged. The Finale presents a different set of problems. How does one integrate those gigantic unison outbursts with those faux naïf intervening sections? Overplaying the former – as here – makes the gentler moments seem all the more incongruous and left little in reserve for the ultimate peroration.