LSO/Zinman Alfred Brendel

Piano Concerto No.25 in C, K503
Symphony No.9

Alfred Brendel (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
David Zinman

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 19 November, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Nobody could accuse the LSO of short-changing its capacity audience with this massive programme.

Under normal circumstances there is a persuasive argument that whenever Mahler 9 is played – and it was over 90 minutes in this account – it should be the only work. However on this occasion we were also treated to Alfred Brendel playing what is arguably Mozart’s greatest piano concerto. If he no longer plays with all his old facility, his impish wit (especially in his own first movement cadenza) remains undimmed and there was all the wisdom that comes only with prolonged experience. Whatever its minor flaws – the Andante second movement felt closer to Poco adagio – this was still magisterial, joyous playing and under David Zinman’s sympathetic gaze Brendel received first-class support from an attentive LSO.

That the Mozart should have been so satisfying was just as well since the Mahler was profoundly disappointing. Zinman has given us penetrating recordings of Richard Strauss’s symphonic poems. Unfortunately on the evidence of this concert this affinity with late-Romantic repertoire clearly does not extend to Mahler, or perhaps the real problem lies in trying to treat Mahler as if his music falls into the same category as Strauss. Unlike the Technicolor orchestral battles of Ein Heldenleben, Mahler’s 9th projects a real-life drama, a genuine life-and-death struggle, and in this respect Mahler does not take kindly to his message being blunted. When Klemperer conducted Mahler 9, whatever the frailties of execution, there was an adamantine harshness to the work’s climaxes. By contrast, Zinman contrived to be bland and turgid. Hard to conceive but this was actually a dapper Mahler 9.

On the surface the first movement – leisurely and running to just over 31 minutes – made the right gestures and it should have added up to an overwhelming experience. However, much of its seismic tension depends on clarifying the constant superimposition of two beats against three and also in observing Mahler’s carefully calibrated terracing of dynamics where simultaneously one instrument will be playing loudly and another softly (or at a different dynamic level). In Zinman’s hands the effect was curiously slack and prosaic precisely because so much of the playing simply coalesced into an undifferentiated mf or – more often – fortissimo. It was frequently impossible to see the wood from the trees so that when the movement’s twin peaks finally were reached the effect was less than overwhelming and the earth failed to move. Nor were matters helped by some unusually insensitive individual playing, the first horn being a particular offender in this respect.

Both the second and third movements – a Ländler and the Rondo-Burleske failed to make their full impact for a quite different reason. In both, tempo relationships were seriously skewed, the first of the three ländlers being swift and well-mannered so that when the second – marked “suddenly quicker” – breaks in it actually felt slower. Similarly with the Rondo-Burleske the effect was extraordinarily lightweight and tame. At its close, normally a pressure-cooker moment where tensions are progressively ratcheted up through successive increases of speed (and which should become almost unbearable), this was so decorous that we could almost have been listening to the finale of a classical symphony rather than being sucked into the musical equivalent of a Black Hole. Instead of being cowed someone actually clapped at this point.

Fortunately things improved in the ‘real’ finale with some rich string playing (Zinman opted for antiphonal violins, essential in this music), better integrated solo contributions and a notably fluent final paragraph. However, catharsis is not achieved by fluency and the music’s bleak and stoic majesty was conspicuously lacking.

Zinman is evidently one-third of the way through recording a Mahler cycle with his Zurich Tonhalle forces. Sadly, if what we heard on this occasion is anything to go by, it will be a Mahler cycle too far. Some people climb mountains just because they are there.

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