Grieg, orch. Halvorsen
Funeral March for Rikard Nordraak
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16
Symphony No.1 in B flat minor
Boris Berezovsky (piano)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 16 August, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Just when you thought the Morecambe and Wise connection to Grieg’s Piano Concerto (“by Grieg”) might have been fading (it was, after all, from a Christmas Show in 1971), here was the comedic duo pictured in the Proms programme with their brilliant stooge, André Previn, as conductor to Morecambe’s solo performance (“… performing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order…”) – a classic sequence undimmed by time (although BBC1 seems not to remember its M & W archive these days, even at Christmas…). Boris Berezovsky has the Concerto’s notes at his easeful command, although one may wonder what the work means to him. Too often turned into a soupy barnstormer of a piece, Grieg’s Piano Concerto is often abused by pianists using it as a vehicle for display and excess; Berezovsky turned his back on such antics – to advantage in terms of being anti-rhetorical, anti-sentimental, even anti-fortissimo (sometimes) … and while his straightforward and self-effacing approach brought much to admire in terms of ‘rescuing’ the piece from affected glamour, there were moments when Berezovsky swallowed too much in one gulp, losing definition and shape, although demonstration and melodrama, when Berezovsky thought such things effective, which wasn’t often, did make an impact for being judiciously placed. Otherwise his delicacy stays in the memory as does the flute-playing of Cecile Løken. This was, in many ways, a refreshing reading, free from cliché, but more affection from the pianist would have been welcome, a quality that came from the orchestra, warmly supporting its soloist, even if Andrew Litton seemed to favour a more expansive approach and did so when he wasn’t accommodating Berezovsky.
The Prom had started with Grieg’s musical tribute to his friend and fellow-composer Rikard Nordraak who died when in his early twenties. Grieg’s Funeral March is, as music, rather undistinguished, although its glower and depth of feeling is impressive. Originally composed for piano duet, then arranged by Grieg for military band and then for brass and percussion, the orchestral version by Johan Halvorsen (a later contemporary of Grieg’s) – who presumably took his cue from Grieg’s own instrumentation – seems rather bombastic (the scoring includes gong and two military drums) and unduly noisy; here, the violent strokes on the bass drum seemed merely gratuitous.
This entrée introduced the strengths and weaknesses of the Bergen Philharmonic; amongst the former are superb woodwind soloists and eloquent cellos; amongst the latter are edgy too loud trumpets and violins (even when massed together) that fall a little short in terms of optimum refulgence. But full marks for bringing Walton’s great First Symphony, which was played with confidence and commitment under a very sympathetic and experienced Walton-conductor (if you see his Decca/Bournemouth Symphony recording of Façade, Viola Concerto and Hindemith Variations, snap it up!). The first movement took a while to settle, but then so did the audience and that damn fountain in the Arena! Fiery and rhythmically chiselled, Litton and the orchestra maintained an emotional momentum throughout the first movement, even in the more reflective passages, which were here intertwined with just balance, but an increase of tempo in the coda rather undid the whole … and the ‘with malice’ scherzo lacked knife-edge incision. The shadows of the slow movement were well caught – more fine flute-playing – so too the Andante pulse and was meticulously detailed without being overly beguiling. The finale had a vigour, consideration and blaze that caught the music’s mood, yet, for all that this was a valiant, hard-working and well-prepared performance, a relative plainness across the whole symphony didn’t always lift the music off the page with enough variegation.
Litton made a witty speech that alluded to time being of the essence – a late-night Prom was imminent – and that BBC stopwatches were on the prowl. He could only conduct one encore, which was an affecting version of Grieg’s ‘The Last Spring’ (from Two Elegiac Melodies), and was as good as his word when he cued ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ (“Peer Gynt”) and left the platform, the Bergen Philharmonic carrying on regardless.