Grimaud & Haitink

Alborada del gracioso
Piano Concerto in G
Symphony No.8 in C minor, Op.65

Hélène Grimaud (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 22 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

As I looked through the programme for this concert, I had a disconcerting sense of déjà vu. Surely Haitink isn’t conducting Shostakovich 8 again already? Haven’t the LSO played it enough? Just recorded it with Rostropovich, and Gergiev leads it soon. And Hélène Grimaud has recorded the Ravel twice. This was more like a ‘greatest hits’ evening.

Still, it would be churlish to complain. Alborada del gracioso, Ravel’s hyperbolic orchestration of his piano piece from Miroirs, was a glittering riot of colour; the basilisk flick of Haitink’s baton kept this blatant music’s straight face. The jester’s song was soulfully delivered by bassoonist Rachel Gough, and there was real snap and poise to the Spanish dance rhythms that contrasted nicely with the spells of luxuriant serenading.

The Piano Concerto inhabits a different stylistic world: it’s a lighter-than-air soufflé of classicism and ‘twenties jazz that demands effortless precision from soloist and orchestra alike. The first movement was a little unfocused, its snazzy syncopation slightly blurred, and Maurice Murphy’s trumpet interjections were all but inaudible. There was certainly common cause between Grimaud and Haitink, who both emphasise the work’s classicism over its jazzy showiness. The piano solo that opens the central Adagio had a rapt, improvised quality. Overall, Grimaud’s playing was beautifully executed but lacked abandon, though the headlong finale was exciting.

It is hard to think of a greater contrast with Ravel than Shostakovich. Haitink has long been among the most cerebral of the Eighth Symphony’s interpreters, emphasising its symphonic architecture rather than its visceral thrills. His reading has only become more convincing as the work has entered the core repertory, rather than being a speciality of Russian ensembles and conductors, and it has a tremendous cumulative power. The steadiness of the opening became a remorseless piling on of crescendos, before breaking off at the shattering climax; the third movement was the epitome of pent-up anxiety, the relentlessly sawing quavers giving way to snarling brass. Haitink located the heart of the piece in the stillness that followed. It was a shame that it was interrupted by the seemingly inescapable ring-tone, making a second appearance of the evening. Still, the playing of the LSO was magnificently controlled in this huge, 70-minute performance, especially when sound and fury subsided once more into silence.

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