Goode Mozart and Bělohlávek Bruckner

Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K488
Symphony No.9 in D minor

Richard Goode (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 31 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Jiří Bělohlávek ‘s first Proms season as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra has featured a wide range of music, with symphonic repertoire a notable feature – and, as one whose conducting of Mahler’s Ninth at last year’s Edinburgh International Festival (with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra) won golden opinions, there was undoubted interest attached to his view on the final symphony by that twin pillar of late-Romantic symphonism, Bruckner (a performance repeated in Edinburgh on 1 September).

There could be few criticisms of the overall textural balance (aided by antiphonal violins) or the BBCSO’s eloquence of response in what was a humane and often-searching account of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. The main problem lay in Bělohlávek’s seeming uncertainty of how to pace the vast outer movements so that incidental detail can be absorbed into a cumulative overall momentum. Over-emphatic phrasing in the opening paragraph hardly grounded the first movement with the requisite conviction, and while formal follow-through in the second and third themes was relatively seamless, the ensuing development failed to climax with anything like the desperate intensity needed. Progress through the recapitulation was secure rather than eventful, and the coda duly capped the movement with powerful – if not ideally implacable – finality.

Bělohlávek took the scherzo at an impulsive tempo, though the eschewing of accented downbeats robbed this music of the ruthlessness it surely demands, and made for insufficient impact with the capricious trio section – though an unchanging tempo during the latter at least ensured there was no hint of sentimentality.

Ensemble thus far had been fallible in passing, but there was little to quibble with in the Adagio – in which Wagner tubas made the most of their discreet broadening of sonority. Interpretatively, however, the movement was no more than the sum of its intermittently fine parts, with the initial pages rather lacking in mystery and the often-tortuous formal progression smoothed out so that progress towards the fateful climactic dissonance felt almost too comfortable. It was a measure of Bělohlávek’s consistency that the coda sounded unusually convincing as the conclusion of the symphony’s torso – bringing a degree of repose that the work at this (unfinished) point should not be expected to provide.

Satisfying rather than inspirational Bruckner, then, and it was a similar story in the performance of Mozart’s A major Piano Concerto. Not that Richard Goode left much to be desired in what was a limpid and unaffected rendering of some of Mozart’s most felicitous keyboard writing, but Bělohlávek’s accompaniment – unfailingly attentive though it was – often verged on the precious. It was significant that the first movement cadenza had an emotional immediacy hitherto lacking, and the close of the Adagio was less a retreat into silence than an opening-out onto a far more plangent expressive plain. Humour in the finale was of a reserved kind, lacking the effervescence the music can yield when the performance – from an orchestral vantage – is less strait-laced. Bělohlávek may well have the hallmarks of a true Mozartean, but his conducting needs to be less inhibited than this.

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