Serenade for Strings, Op.20
Piano Concerto No.25 in C, K503
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
Andreas Haefliger (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 6 April, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Although he has made numerous appearances with the BBC Symphony Orchestra over recent years, Donald Runnicles seems not to have conducted the London Symphony Orchestra prior to this concert – an occasion which, if not so likely to go down as a seminal event, was certainly an auspicious and satisfying one.
Elgar’s Serenade for Strings might seem a gentle ‘play in’, but its amiable melodic contours conceal a true symphonist in the making. It was this aspect that was borne out by Runnicles’s unsentimental approach, stressing thematic continuity between movements and not killing the music with kindness. The pathos of the Larghetto was sensitively judged, while the Allegretto’s recollection of music from the first movement was deftly integrated so as to bring the whole work firmly but gently full circle.
Quite a contrast with Mozart’s last piano concerto in the key of C major, the most imposing of all his works in this medium. It gave ample opportunity for Andreas Haefliger to display the keyboard dexterity that has become a hallmark of his performances, and though the outer movements were a little too hectic for the music’s unforced grandeur fully to register, the central Andante – if not the most profound of Mozart slow movements then among the most subtle – was tellingly poised, and the finale’s robust energy was well conveyed by both parties. Haefliger remains a perplexing pianist: technically almost beyond reproach, his sheer fluency in even the most intricate passagework too often suggests a response on auto-pilot, while his uniformity of dynamics and limited range of nuance leave the listener unmoved by his musicianship. That said, the rapport with Runnicles and the LSO was a secure one – ably capturing the concerto’s impact, if not too many of its formal and expressive sleights of hand.
In the UK at least, Runnicles is still thought of more as a conductor in the opera-house than concert-hall. A fine Bruckner 8 with the BBCSO last year helped redressed the balance, and this account of Brahms One cemented his symphonic credentials, one given with the fullest number of strings (as the Elgar had been), this time with nine double basses, antiphonal violins a constant. Not that this was a revelatory or even innovative performance: rather, its success lay in finding a persuasive compromise between the self-containment of present-day ‘authenticity’ and the expressive license of an earlier era. After a powerful but never rhetorical introduction, tension wavered in the first movement’s exposition (not repeated) as Runnicles strove to combine clarity with momentum; something achieved in the development and at the start of the reprise, but losing focus as the movement headed towards its resigned close.
The Andante was touchingly rendered at a flowing tempo that made it a ‘romanza’ bittersweet but never mawkish, and the third movement’s eliding of scherzo and intermezzo was accommodated with little need to modify tempo at either the centre or the close. Runnicles was a little cautious in the finale’s introduction (an inspired afterthought on Brahms’s part), but then paced the ‘big tune’ with a flexibility that neither undermined its easeful majesty nor pre-empted its energetic transformation as the main movement gets underway. Runnicles had the measure of its often-schematic formal process (something Brahms was to avoid in his later symphonies), with the slight confusion of balance going into the coda a rare failing of clarity (not least when compared to the textural messiness of Daniel Harding’s recent Brahms Four with this orchestra), and ensured an apotheosis – incisive but never bombastic – that set the seal on a confident and uncommonly well thought-through interpretation, one able to make one reconsider the music afresh.
Hopefully the LSO’s new-found association with Runnicles will be continued.