LSO/Gardiner – Beethoven 6

Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.19
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)

Maria João Pires (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir John Eliot Gardiner

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 9 February, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Phoptograph: Sheila Rock. ©DeccaBeethoven certainly brings out the maestro in Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who fairly slapped down his calling-card in a blistering and big performance of the ‘Overture’ to “Egmont, delivered with much patrician swagger. This late-middle-period piece is full of the révolutionnaire et romantique spirit of “Fidelio” (which Beethoven was still working on at the time of “Egmont”), and Gardiner’s vivid, colourful approach made it sound like a very non-classical symphonic poem – indeed, the hushed opening had a breadth and sense of anticipation that evoked Berlioz, and the heavy accents in the main Allegro went off like rockets. The LSO strings effortlessly reproduced a light, wiry, ‘period’ sheen – very different from their customary, sumptuous sound – and the astringent brass and rattling timpani completed Gardiner’s high-definition reading.

Maria João Pires. Photograph: Christian SteinerThe first time I heard Maria João Pires was in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, with Riccardo Chailly at the Proms in the mid-1990s. A magnificent performance, suffused with an extraordinary grace, one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and I’ve not heard her subsequently in such elevated form. There was a Wigmore Hall recital, when she was noticeably under the weather but agreed to perform – which creates a peculiar sort of limbo for the audience – and a cancellation. While not exactly a revelation – the Second Piano Concerto, with all due deference to Beethoven, it is not in the same league as the other concertos, and is clearly beholden to earlier classical models, Mozart in particular – it was worth the wait, and the trust.

Pires has announced that she is winding down her performing career to devote herself to her educational and social projects with children in Brazil, but there wasn’t a hint of diminishment in her playing, nor in her quiet charm and easy rapport with the capacity audience, which included The Prince of Wales, apparently a big fan. The fluency and finesse of her technique, her scrupulously clean pedalling and the subtle range of colour were all to the fore, particularly in the long cadenza to the first movement and in the slow movement, one of those long, quasi-improvisatory rhapsodies where Beethoven’s voice comes unmistakably into focus. The contrast of the modern Steinway sound against the LSO’s ‘period’ style might have struck some as mannered, but Pires’s playing was so sublime and so attuned to the music, it almost didn’t matter. Her encore, Scarlatti’s dreamlike Sonata in A (Kk218), reaffirmed the extreme refinement and intelligence of her musicianship.

Two days earlier, on the evidence of various reviews, Gardiner and the LSO’s ‘Choral’ Symphony was terrific. The ‘Pastoral’, however, was not such a success. This is music that needs space to unfold, but Gardiner pushed it too hard. The first movement dropped the ‘ma non troppo’ bit of Beethoven’s tempo instruction, so that the accumulative chordal passages, which can be positively transcendent, here sounded gabbled. In the slow – well, slowish – movement, once you got used to the thick, opaque sound of the LSO’s muted strings, there was plenty of attractive watery colour, but again, the music needed a bit more time to stand and stare. The most satisfactory moments were the leads into and out of the ‘Thunderstorm’, and the storm itself was driven hard and fast, to great effect.

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