Philharmonia Orchestra German Romantics III – 11 Feb

Variations on the St Antony Chorale, Op.56
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
Symphony No.4 in A, Op.90 (Italian)

Hélène Grimaud (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 11 February, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Even in the context of a mini-series of Romantic works, this concert must have contained some of the most popular and most performed pieces in the whole repertoire, and it is reassuring to report that the hall was full. To the outer works in the programme, Christoph von Dohnányi brought his trademark of civilised, refined performances. It might be argued that the ’hunting’ variation in the Brahms lacked bite or the ’night music’ one that followed could have had more mystery. Equally, the third movement minuet of the ’Italian’ symphony could have been more Mediterranean in its sweep, and the final tarantella more frenzied. These were, however, these were idiomatic, finely played renditions that made for pleasing listening.

There was nothing routine about the Schumann concerto. Hélène Grimaud is charismatic and at times wayward. On this occasion she produced a performance nothing short of inspired, far better than her Rachmaninov with the LPO last year, and every bit the equal of the Beethoven Fourth Concerto at the Proms, which took place on ’9/11’ itself. Grimaud made us see the concerto as if it were a song with orchestral accompaniment, an identity that suits the work and Schumann very well, and which gave full rein to Grimaud’s own wilfulness. In the first movement, her lyrical passagework was more successful than the sometimes splashy, harsh or unvaried forte chord portions. She played the cadenza boldly, passionately, as if in one endless breath – from this moment the concerto took wing.

The dialogue between soloist and orchestra in the ’Intermezzo’ was well judged, and at its ending Grimaud conjured a really magical pianissimo tone, as Dohnányi perfectly staged the transition into the Finale. Apart from the initial flourish here, Grimaud played with precision and accuracy, with deep feeling as well as dash, and made what is an immensely familiar piece sound entirely fresh. Full marks to conductor and orchestra for being a perfect foil to Grimaud’s headstrong interpretation.

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