Symphony No.1 in C, Op.21
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.36
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Clarke
Reviewed: 12 April, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
Good to see a Beethoven symphony cycle in London! All seemed well, too: Cadogan Hall still has a brand-spanking new feel about it, and the programme booklet is a dream (it covers all four concerts, is lavishly illustrated – albeit black and white only – and boasts detailed and knowledgeable notes by Ateş Orga). Musically, my hope was that the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra could re-carve a reputation for itself amongst London’s elite orchestras with this cycle. Talk about deluded.
Janusz Piotrowicz is a UK-born Polish conductor who appears to be something of a pianistic ‘Wunderkind’, if his biography is to be believed (in 1978 he programmed the Liszt B minor and the ‘Hammerklavier’ in one evening!). Piotrowicz apparently has a policy of conducting from memory, something in evidence on this occasion. But he is hardly the most inspiring figure. His beat is awkward and essentially inexpressive and, if one’s ears are to be trusted, distinctly uninspiring.
To be fair, there were good things about the First Symphony’s slow introduction. Rests were given full due, the tempo was flowing and there was affectionate string phrasing. Set against this was some approximate woodwinds and pizzicatos (ensemble problems were to recur throughout the concert). The exposition repeat was observed, but it was to repeat music that was Allegro but not really the prescribed con brio. If the ‘slow’ movement was (correctly) in the written 3/8, it was on the bland side. I strove in vain to identify a deconstructionist stance to explain the dullness, but was left believing that the orchestra simply did not care. Unconsidered chordal balancing in the winds pointed towards lack of rehearsal (or inadequate use of rehearsal, while the heavy, plodding ‘Menuetto’ (actually a scherzo, in all but name) exhibited only the merest hints of fire in its belly. The opening scales of the finale were, again, not together; the movement’s main body was presto against the written ‘Allegro molto e vivace’: a small distinction on paper but aurally very obvious.
The Second Symphony similarly mixed the routine with regular approximations of ensemble. On the plus side, Piotrowicz just managed to avoid romanticising the six-in-a-bar Adagio molto. If the unison D minor arpeggio was impressive, it was then scuppered by further suspect string ensemble. There was, at least, something of a bright D major to the Allegro con brio and accents were a little more punchy here. The inner movements seemed unrehearsed (does Piotrowicz, like the Beecham of legend, only rehearse the beginning and the end of pieces? In fact, does he even do that?). The messy strings of the slow movement were complemented by the lack of charm. Mystery was completely lost here, but at least there was one good thing to say – the first horn’s top Bs were near-perfect. Even here, time for a gripe – great programme booklet, page-long biography of conductor, but no orchestra list to congratulate the worthy by name. The finale was hindered by Piotrowicz’s ungainly beat.
Repeats can be a dangerous thing. In theory, of course, they are to be welcomed, but in reality hearing lacklustre music a second time is simply no fun at all. My notes for the ‘Eroica’ first movement read, ‘Repeat, alas’. True, Cadogan Hall’s dry acoustic did not help the staccato opening chords, but it had nothing to do with the music’s lack of inner drive. Amazingly, Piotrowicz pressed through the post-climactic E minor episode leaving it trailing, meaningless, in the wind.
The Funeral March, for those synaesthetically-inclined, begins not in black but in a sort of indigo. Piotrowicz chose to paint it in sludge-brown. Rays of light struggled to make themselves known later, and if the counterpoint had aspirations towards weight, the movement as a whole threatened to run out of steam. And was the fact that several violinists were bowing against the rest in unison passages deliberate? Good that the horns played with gusto in the third movement Trio (very nimble second horn – again, no orchestra list to enable one to single her out) but the list of complaints of the finale is almost too long to transcribe here. Great oboe solos, but where was the support from colleagues? Screechy, piercing high violins suffered (again) from bad ensemble and the violas were weak.
The main gripe – among many, if you have read this far – is that Piotrowicz seems to demonstrate no finite interpretative stance on this music whatsoever. He is just blown by some sort of Beethovenian wind this way and that. In terms of long-range hearing, a course in Schenker would not go amiss. And he could do with a half-decent teacher to help him rehearse systematically paying attention to vitals such as ensemble, chord blending and balancing.