Royal Philharmonic Beethoven

The Creatures of Prometheus, Op.43 – Overture
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)

Joanna MacGregor (piano)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Owain Arwel Hughes

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 26 September, 2006
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

I feared the worst during the Overture. The first chord was ragged; the ‘maestoso’ opening was pompous: terse phrases banged loudly and emptily into the awaiting air. The lightness and speed of the following allegro competed with the ‘Marriage of Figaro’ overture. Why? The ‘Prometheus’ overture heralds Beethoven’s sole ballet score – why should the music scurry with such disregard for choreography?

Joanna MacGregor is an arresting pianist – thoughtful, sensitive, authoritative and skilled. She is something of a loner, with a highly-strung sensibility and a toned technique. She handled the piano part as if it comprised a string of festive lights – each of them strongly-coloured and utterly distinctive. Thus we encountered a gentle pianissimo of rapt stillness, a crystal-clear picking-out of a prime melody, a masterful left-hand capable of thrusting stentorian octaves into the musical discourse, a trill to make the rafters quiver and scampering arpeggios and scales that neared the speed of light.

She seemed to regard the solo part of the concerto as a series of moments – dark or light, restful or electrifying. I gained no sense of the first movement as a heroic whole – MacGregor’s piano gave a solo performance, punctuated by rather dull orchestral interludes and accompaniments. Her cadenzas, however, were magnificent – onrushing and imperious. The slow movement carried a beautiful stillness, though not quite catching quiet, impassioned serenity. The last movement scampered home joyously – orchestra and pianist, playing like tomboys, and as one.

To my surprise, the star of the evening was the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony – a middle-of-the-road performance of a (too) often-played masterpiece. From the Royal Philharmonic, the work carried a freshness, enthusiasm and affection to die for. The orchestra’s members must know the work inside out, but – and here’s the marvel – it has not gone stale on them. Owain Arwel Hughes, to his credit, saw no need to claim a quixotic individual take on the work. The result – at a forward-moving, lithe pace – was an engaging, sunny experience. I especially enjoyed the mellow brass though I gained much pleasure from the rural woodwind instruments, the singing upper strings, and the gutsy lower ones. The tempos suited the overall concept – the striding vigorously into the country, the flowing streams through the woodland, the rumbustious merry-making and the powerful storm breaking imperiously and cleansing the air. These were simple pleasures, maybe – but pleasures they were … rare pleasures, in fact. This was a treat.

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