Philharmonia Weller

The Creatures of Prometheus, Op.43 – Overture
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.19
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

Maria João Pires (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Walter Weller

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 14 October, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

What might have been a radical rethink of Beethoven became a reaffirming of traditional values when an indisposed Frans Brüggen made way for Walter Weller, the advertised brace of Dvořák Slavonic Dances (surely in Weller’s repertoire?) replaced by the overture to Beethoven’s rarely heard ballet The Creatures of Prometheus. And, as the imposing but never ponderous introduction made way for a vividly delineated allegro, any thought that ‘traditional values’ is synonymous with portentous indulgence was soon forgotten.

Certainly there was nothing heavy-handed in the account of the Second Piano Concerto. And, with Maria João Pires at her liveliest and most crisply articulated, the first movement passed by swiftly but not uneventfully – combining Mozartian grace and Haydnesque wit in a way that the composer no doubt dismissed even before the work was published, but which marks it out as a musical bridge between eras. Nor was the harmonic ambivalence of the later-written cadenza passed over, Pires content to let this ‘second development’ speak on more personal terms. Impersonality was not always absent from the Adagio – that is until the closing exchanges between soloist and orchestra brought a rapt inwardness, and if the finale can have greater sparkle, Weller’s care over the rhythmic synchronising of wind and strings ensured that the hunt never became a drag.

Making Beethoven 5 live for the present is a tall order for any conductor. Few can have come away from Weller’s rendition having experienced a spiritual epiphany, yet there was much to relish in his approach. A weighty, but never indulgent first movement – the ‘fate’ motto powerfully if a little rhetorically stated – was followed by an Andante whose heroic sentiments did not conceal the ruminative quality at its core – though, interpretatively at least, the movement lost focus around mid-point. The scherzo was trenchantly delivered while the lead-in to the finale brought a pulsating intensity that was the nearest thing to emotional frisson in this performance. The movement itself, shorn of the exposition repeat, was over surprisingly quickly – though Weller did not eschew the surging intensity that caps the development, nor the self-effacing humour that precedes the C major rampage of the coda.

So, an enjoyable concert on its own terms – with the Philharmonia’s playing only rarely below its best, and the feeling that Weller’s prowess in this repertoire should not be brought out only as an emergency.

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