RPO/Gatti Beethoven Cycle – Part 3 (4 May)

Leonora – Overture No.3, Op.72
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

Freddy Kempf (piano)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniele Gatti

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 4 May, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This concert began with a hugely impressive account of Leonora No.3 Overture, quite the best Beethoven conducting I haveseen or heard for quite some time.

This monumental overture – one of four Beethoven wrote for Fidelio – is more like a symphonic synthesis of the opera’s dramatic content, and Gatti brought a sense of theatrical flair to bear, with judicious tempi and an ear for instrumental detail and balance. Starting with a unanimous first chord (not so frequent an occurrence as it ought to be), there was an apt sense of expectation in the opening section, and the spacious tempo contributed to the theatrical atmosphere. Bassoons were suitably creepy and dynamics were scrupulously observed and made their point tellingly. A proper ’allegro’ speed (rather than so fast that instruments cannot play properly) for the main body of the overture allowed phrases to be articulated clearly. Climaxes were powerful with brass predominating but without overwhelming or becoming coarse in tone.

The two off-stage trumpet calls came from different directions – left and right – which was extremely effective. Prior to these, Gatti did not make an unwritten or unwanted ritardando, so their sound was as unexpected as Beethoven must have intended. The final presto, launched by some stunning rapid string playing, was truly exhilarating and the whole performance was a summation of thejourney from darkness to light, which Beethoven traverses during his opera.

After this magnificent start, things became decidedly less impressive in the concerto. A weighty orchestral introduction, full of potency and portent, promised much, but with the arrival of the soloist, the musical argument was hampered by some flawed and unsubtle execution. Freddy Kempf is a fluent and demonstrative player – although his habit of thumping the floor when using the sustaining pedal is not an attractive characteristic – but his interpretative ideas concerning this concerto are not, as yet, fullyformed. There were many slips and fluffs, from his initial scales onwards, and the performance as a whole had a sense of unease and uncertainty.

In fact, from time to time, there was an impression of two performances going on, with Kempf wanting to press ahead in the outer movements from the sensible tempos Gatti had established. The first movement cadenza was blown out of proportion, sounding like a transcendental Liszt study, whilst the opening of the second movement was much too loud for Beethoven’s prescribed ’pianissimo’. In that slow movement, there was compensation from some exquisitely moulded wind phrasing, but a necessary feeling of tranquillity was absent. In the Finale, which darted along, wit and caprice were lacking and this was altogether an unconvincing performance. It was, however, greeted with considerable enthusiasm by the audience.

Rapturous applause also followed the Seventh Symphony, which convinced only in the Finale. The first three movements were too quick for comfort – certainly for mine and, I think, for Beethoven’s. The ’Poco sostenuto’ direction for the introduction is, admittedly, ambiguous, but surely suggests a degree of spaciousness. This performance was pretty rapid, and so solos from the oboe, and others, were hustled rather than elastic. The subsequent ’Vivace’ was extremely fast and, inevitably, the rhythms were not able to be articulated clearly or, indeed, as the movement progressed, accurately.

The ’Allegretto’ second movement also tripped by, with very mannered emphasis on the crotchets. With all repeats taken, the ’Presto’ Scherzo seemed a more substantial movement than it can when they are omitted, and with barely a slowing up for the contrasting Trio there was a sense of breathlessness, but the virtuosity of the orchestral playing, with attacks and entries scrupulously together, was indeed impressive.

For the fourth movement, Gatti found the ideal tempo for Beethoven’s ’Allegro con brio’ marking. From swirling strings and superbly pointed rhythms to the cascading conclusion, this was music-making of a very high order. If only the earlier movements had been on this level – or that of the overture – this could have been a remarkable performance of this extraordinary symphony.

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