LSO/Gergiev – Tchaikovsky 4 – Nelson Freire plays Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.2

Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36

Nelson Freire (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 25 September, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The opening concert of the LSO’s 2011-12 Season brought us two works either of which could happily form the major offering on any programme. On this occasion how happy one could have been with either. This was an outstanding concert from first note to last.

Nelson Freire. ©Andrys BastenNelson Freire is one of the world’s truly great pianists, a musician’s musician through and through. His communion is unfailingly with the music, never with the gallery, a point underscored by his encore, Sgambati’s transcription of Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits – its calm authority spoke to us quietly and movingly of a world beyond. One senses that for Freire performing does not come easily – it was the same with another great Brahmsian, Clifford Curzon – but when teamed with an orchestra and conductor with whom there is a clear mutual empathy the results are touched with eminence.

What set this performance apart was its sheer completeness, the pianist inhabiting the work’s every nook and cranny through burnished deep-rooted sound, power and grandeur aplenty but also moments of exceptional delicacy. Whereas in many cases the finale comes as something of an anti-climax, on this occasion without sacrificing any of its grazioso quality it capped the edifice, at once rugged, playful and uninhibited, and above all the absolute counterpoise in terms of emotional weight to everything that had gone before. In all four movements too there was an inner certainty of direction, the music moving constantly forward, yet expanding and contracting naturally. Symptomatic of this understanding was the treatment of the sempre più agitato at the scherzo’s close, genuinely more and more agitated, not simply faster.

Valery Gergiev. Photograph: Marco BorggreveFrom David Pyatt’s serene opening horn solo the LSO’s response was to offer full-blooded, gold-plated support in every department. The only quibble – and it certainly was not sufficient seriously to mar one’s enjoyment – was the cello solo in the slow movement. For all its security it was hardly mezzo piano as indicated, more a throbbing forte which robbed the opening paragraph of its inwardness; Freire’s contemplative exploratory playing soon took us to the heart of the matter though.

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth continued the cycle of the symphonies (excluding Manfred) from Gergiev and the LSO. In this instance it was definitely a case of both conductor and orchestra putting their best foot forward, Gergiev’s affinity with Tchaikovsky and ability to energise an orchestra fully in evidence. Initially this was a reading which took its time with a comparatively leisurely tempo for the first movement (although its climaxes drew a volatile response and certainly ignited). There was a notably eloquent contribution on oboe from Emmanuel Abbühl in the slow movement and elsewhere. With antiphonally seated violins, much inner detail frequently glossed over (such as the delicate exchanges between these sections just before the first movement coda) emerged freshly minted. Best of all were the pizzicato scherzo, despatched with a sovereign ease, and the frenzied finale, which drew playing of rare power and commitment from all sections.

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