Philharmonia Concert – 13th November

Grosse Fuge, Op.133 (arr. Weingartner)
Concerto for Orchestra
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat(’Emperor’)

Mikhail Pletnev (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 13 November, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The final concert in Mikhail Pletnev’s Beethoven concerto cycle, and a fiftieth anniversary celebration of the ’Royal Concert in aid of the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund’. This was the fourteenth such occasion that The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh had attended, arriving to the brief splendour of ’The National Anthem’ in Gordon Jacob’s arrangement, dominated by Fanfare Trumpeters of the Royal Military School of Music.

How appropriate that they then heard one of the greatest pieces written at any time and in any idiom. Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, detached from its original – and rightful – context as the finale of the String Quartet in B flat, Op.130. Felix Weingartner’s transcription for string orchestra is more than an expansion plus bass line; it emphasises the work’s cumulative motivic density, so that the final ’homecoming’ is made the more apparent.

Not so completely, however, as in the context of Beethoven’s original quartet conception. In any case, a large string body inevitably diffuses the sense of this music existing at the limits of the medium, surely what Stravinsky had in mind when he spoke of its absolute contemporaneity. Dohnányi’s was an expert but uninvolving reading, unerringly thought-through while doing little to temper the neutrality of the transcription. Upper strings sounded pressed in some of the more intricate fugal passages; again, what sounds appropriate in the quartet medium loses much of its purpose in the larger format.

There can be little direct criticism of the Philharmonia’s playing in Witold Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra. Dohnányi is not wrong – and certainly not alone! – to treat this work as a showpiece with substance, bringing out the contrapuntal and canonic wizardry that lies behind its folk-inflected facade. The opening ’Intrada’ rose to a majestic climax, tension flawlessly maintained, while the ensuing ’Capriccio’ moved with startling clarity and lightness of touch. The central ’Passacaglia’, most prescient of the composer’s future development, was spellbinding in its upward traversal of the orchestra’s compass, leading to a hard-hitting ’Toccata’ and a ’Corale’ of limpid beauty. The Philharmonia surmounted the lengthy fugato writing that follows with ease bordering on nonchalance, Dohnányi accelerating to the triumphal return of the chorale theme. A performance that rightly brought the house down.

Yet there was a dimension missing here. The Concerto was completed in 1954, and finds Lutoslawski walking a conceptual tightrope between the then dictates of socialist realist directness and the need for ’contemporary’ expression. That the work succeeded in its intended brief, while remaining an impressive achievement today, says much about its bringing-together of reality and imagination. It is possible to be excited and moved by this work – now as in Warsaw forty-seven years ago.

A ’concerto for orchestra, with concertante piano’ might just be how Mikhail Pletnev conceives Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. After a brace of opening runs that pointedly split into two at the top of the register, he partnered Dohnányi’s secure, if occasionally slightly foursquare approach with pianism both quixotic and self-effacing. As in the Third and Fourth Concertos, the interpretation only began to gel in the development. Pletnev almost overplayed the ’anti’ nature of the ’anti-cadenza’, while leaving us in no doubt that Beethoven has here crossed from a concerto-type formal trajectory to a symphonic one. Spirited playing from horns and trumpets reaffirmed an ’Emperor’ quality that was otherwise eschewed.

The sequence of variations of the ’Adagio’ was securely and poetically rendered. Co-ordination between pianist and orchestra was at times threatened, but Pletnev deftly conveyed the vulnerability of the music; an emotional quality never more touching than when employed by Beethoven. The finale had the right athletic vigour. Pletnev never sought to make things easy for himself or the music – inexplicably so in the downward caper back to the rondo theme on its first and third returns, when a combination of mid-point ritardando and over-pedalling left the music sounding tonally and harmonically adrift. If this was radical, subjective Beethoven interpretation, it certainly had the audience roaring its approval.

Why is it that this work, along with the Fifth Symphony, is so hard to interpret today? The obvious answer would be that its unbridled heroism is completely at odds with our cynical, un-heroic age. Yet in seeking to reappraise the archetype, Pletnev failed to reach its essence – which comes through looking the music directly in its metaphorical ’eye’, recognising the humanity which motivates the heroism, and responding to it intuitively. This was iconoclastic Beethoven playing which pretended not to recognise the music’s intrinsic ’greatness’. From that perspective, however, this was the logical culmination of a compulsively absorbing cycle.

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