Prom 68: 11th September 2001 – Paris 1

Marcia funebre (Symphony No.3 – Eroica)
Piano Concerto No.4 in G
Symphonie fantastique

Hélène Grimaud (piano)
Orchestre de Paris conducted by Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 11 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The line between civilisation and barbarism, life and death is very narrow. We live in an age when we hide from death, when it is shut away in hospitals, beneath sheets, and inside body bags. In the West we have not, for a very long time, seen this scale of death, only in war, plague or earthquake. So it is impossible to find a just level of response, to something doubly shocking – in its scale and where it took place.

It is difficult to know, therefore, how to square one’s reaction to terrorism, which cannot pass unnoticed even in a concert review for this day. Of all music, Beethoven surely best exemplifies the indomitable nature of the human spirit, its struggle against odds. Beethoven is a symbol of aspiration, resistance and heroism. If one could choose only one representative to plead the fragile case of culture against darkness, one would surely choose him.

In a change to the advertised Beethoven overture (The Creatures of Prometheus), the concert began with the ’Funeral March’ from the “Eroica”. It is reasonable to speculate that the performers themselves were in a subdued mood. Certainly, Eschenbach’s was a careful, deeply felt and slow account, with an increasing sense of regeneration towards the end, played under a veil of mourning.

Hélène Grimaud made her Proms debut in the concerto she recently recorded (Teldec). Her performances are always eventful and never routine. As so often, the first solo entry (which here, famously, is the very opening of the work, the first time in concerto-history) was a microcosm of the soloist’s approach. Grimaud was more severe and deliberate than might have been expected, more reserved than in her recording, but with the combination of sweetness and power which is her trademark. Her playing continued more reflectively and discursively than I had anticipated.

There is no doubt Grimaud has developed the vision and strength of interpretation that characterises the mature artist. She is able to present detail – for example the fine delivery of staccato ornamenting the second subject – in the context of a wider structure. Moreover, she is at ease with a wide variety of voices and emotions – the powerful bass octaves near the end of the exposition, the serenity of the lead-in to the development, the gradual building of tension through the movement. There were many felicitous moments – the passage in the treble near the end of the development was magically done, or the counter-melody in the left hand at the return of the second subject. Towards the end, Grimaud injected a greater urgency. The cadenza itself was playful and allusive, and its octave passages openly virtuosic.

The slow movement found Grimaud convinced and sure, beautifully breathed long sentences characteristic. It seemed as if Orpheus tamed the beasts of the orchestra. Perhaps dialogue lacked the last degree of understanding; only the cadenza-like climax really disappointed, delivered with too great a stillness. The last movement was quite different; it was as if Grimaud were one of her beloved wolves let off the leash. There was an immediate sense of electricity, Grimaud wilful, at times wayward, always with an evident love for the music.

Are fashions in Beethoven playing changing? Long ago, we were used to Schnabel’s poetry, or Kempff’s distinctiveness; then the aloof, printed-score-in-sound as exemplified by Pollini. Now there seems to be a move towards something more impressionistic, fragmented, deconstructed even, as we hear in Uchida – who wrings the last drop of emotion from everything she plays – Zimerman (witness his RFH recital this year), or here, Grimaud. She played the finale as if it were in part an improvisation, a scattered collection of fleeting thoughts, yet which made perfect sense in the context of an absolute belief in form. There were occasional lapses – there could have been a stronger contribution from the ’cello solo, and Grimaud’s passagework was untidy towards the end; a memorable finish to the concerto though, the final phrases quite enchanting.

The Paris Orchestra made an excellent start to Symphonie fantastique. The idee fixe stole in, the playing graceful and detailed; Eschenbach had a fine sense of structure. One felt, however, and continued to feel, that slightly cool Berlioz was Eschenbach’s view rather than the effect of the day’s events.

The waltz movement was very French, on a light rein – neat and ironic. The wind-playing, especially flute and clarinet, was especially fine. In turn, the slow movement was tender and well-shaped, building slowly, without one doubting a sense of vision. It seemed almost 18th-century, chiselled rather than anguished, insufficiently disturbed by the stormy middle section, and with only one moment of unbridled agitation at the main climax.

Did the emotional thermometer rise with ’March to the Scaffold’? Certainly, the opening was sinister and dramatic, with an excellent contribution from the brass; the last spark was missing, the march more martial than demonic, delivered with sprightly rhythm, with style and élan, but over-controlled.

The last movement found the Albert Hall, its acoustic I so often criticise (and which again harmed contrapuntal passages), come into its own. The eerie off-stage bell, combined with the disturbing music of the witches’ Sabbath – in particular the brass’s ’Dies Irae’ had immensely more power and impact in so large a space. Eschenbach managed to combine bacchanalian anarchy with German discipline. The audience was in raptures; my enthusiasm is more measured, but on an evening when a powerful dose of life-affirmation was needed, this concert made a noble and notable effort.

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