OAE Beethoven Cycle – 5: Symphony 6/James Gaffigan

Coriolan Overture, Op.62
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)

Alexei Lubimov (fortepiano)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
James Gaffigan

Reviewed by: Richard Landau

Reviewed: 25 May, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

James Gaffigan. Photograph: Margaretta K. MitchellThis concert, the last of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Beethoven symphony cycle, was to have comprised the Violin Concerto and the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, with Leonidas Kavakos as both soloist and conductor. His indisposition led not only to a change of programme, but also to an opportunity for the young American conductor James Gaffigan, who recently conducted Mahler’s Ninth with the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra and who next summer takes up the posts of Chief Conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic.

In Coriolan Gaffigan showed himself highly attuned to the more overtly dynamic aspects of the piece. The opening was assuredly vibrant, with the OAE’s period instruments – particularly the valve-less horns, and the superb double bass section led by Chi-chi Nwanoku – full of resonance. If the allegro was slightly hard-driven, the lyrical second subject was affectingly done. The development, though, with its repeated two-note figure, was a trifle undifferentiated, and the close might have had more gravitas if it had been taken more spaciously.

Alexei LubimovStepping into the breach as soloist was Moscow-born Alexei Lubimov, who played on a fortepiano built three years ago by David Winston, offering a different experience from the norm given the instrument’s softer sound, restricted range, and limited ability to sustain. But any such initial impression soon passed as the ears acclimatised, and a delightful sense of intimacy was experienced.

Lubimov is a disarmingly slight, intellectual-looking figure. In his playing, momentary flaws were of no account when set next to the crystalline delicacy of his performance and his ability to sustain sound, notwithstanding the fortepiano’s limitations. After the first-movement cadenza, touchingly effective here, the veiled effect achieved by the fortepiano’s dampened strings was quite special. Lubimov brought a beautifully simple expressivity to the Largo, and Gaffigan and the orchestra’s accompaniment was equally memorable, not least in the passage where flute and bassoon quietly accompany the ruminative soloist. There was real bounce to the finale, Lubimov’s nimble playing counterpoised with many more entrancing orchestral timbres.

The ‘Pastoral’ was full of interest, too. Gaffigan took the first movement at a fair lick, very joyous. In ‘Scene by the brook’ the playing of woodwinds and antiphonal violins made for a palpable sense of well-being, and the ensuing merrymaking had an almost abandoned quality, rustic sounds emanating from bassoon and horns. An impression of vast natural forces was powerfully conjured up in the ‘Storm’, and ‘Shepherd’s Song’ – beautifully played – brought much-needed balm. James Gaffigan is definitely someone to watch out for, and the wonderful players of the OAE clearly enjoyed working with him.

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