Philharmonia Orchestra/Bamert – 28 November

King Stephen – Overture
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

Murray Perahia (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Matthias Bamert

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 28 November, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

An evening of disappointments on three scores. Firstly, the absence of Wolfgang Sawallisch (born 1923), one of the major conductors of his generation, due to illness. Secondly, that the generally underrated Matthias Bamert, whilst a thoroughly competent conductor, failed to make the most of his opportunity. Thirdly, that despite much beautiful pianism – does he ever make an ugly sound? – Murray Perahia seemed curiously at odds with the music.

To take the concerto first. It is of course possible to play Beethoven successfully in many different ways, much as the same character in Shakespeare can successfully sustain many different interpretations. With Beethoven at one extreme we have the beetle-browed seriousness of Gilels or Richter; at the other extreme, the teasing wit and unpredictability of Pletnev or Brendel. What does not seem to work to the music’s advantage is that it should sound like Mendelssohn. That said, a few minor slips apart, there was much beautiful pianism in evidence, especially in the slow movement but, in this of all Beethoven’s piano concertos, one found oneself longing for more grit in the oyster, especially in the first movement, and more laconic humour in the last. If the last few pages of the ’Finale’ do not bring a smile to an audience’s face – or preferably make it laugh out loud – then there is something missing. Here it sounded dutiful. The accompaniment was excellent, however, and nobody should be deterred from hearing the remainder of the cycle – Perahia is clearly better attuned to the Apollonian aspects of Beethoven which predominate in much of the Emperor, which he plays on 5 December.

With Sawallisch’s cancellation, the symphony was switched, for no discernible reason, from the ’Pastoral’ to the ’Eroica’. This bold move – a bit like Nasser Hussain putting the Australians in to bat when he won the toss in the first Test Match – backfired, and one cannot help thinking that it might have been wise to stick with the original programme. The ’Eroica’ is undoubtedly one of the supreme challenges for an interpreter. London has heard some very great performances over the years – from Giulini and, with the Philharmonia from Sanderling and Klemperer – and as such, like marriage, is not to be entered into lightly. To hear a merely competent performance leaves one disproportionately dissatisfied. In terms of synchronisation this performance stood up reasonably well – Bamert was after all an associate of Szell in Cleveland – but where was the fire, the sense of this music breaking the bonds of all that had gone before it, the tensile flexing and contracting of tensions over long spans of music, the sense of danger?

Crucially, the performance lacked that potent mixture of tragedy and patient rejoicing, darkness followed by light, so central to Beethoven; the end of the ’Funeral March’ instead of fragmenting breathlessly and hanging in the air simply seemed to come to a stop, whilst the concluding pages of the ’Finale’ sounded loud and frenetic rather than joyous and overwhelmingly life-affirming – as they must.

The concert opened with the Overture to King Stephen, Beethoven’s contribution to the opening of German theatre in Budapest – music of dry wit which received an excellent spry performance.

  • Wolfgang Sawallisch is replaced by Frans Brüggen, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky and Sir Charles Mackerras – 1, 5 & 8 December respectively, RFH

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