Proms 2011 – Netherlands Radio PO/Zweden – Bruckner 8 … David Fray plays Mozart

Piano Concerto No.25 in C, K503
Symphony No.8 in C minor [1890 score edited Leopold Nowak]

David Fray (piano)

Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Jaap van Zweden

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 30 August, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

David Fray. Photograph: emiclassics.comFluency and refinement were there for the taking in the French pianist David Fray’s Proms debut, as was his clean and analytical approach to one of Mozart’s biggest piano concertos, which for all its C major majesty does not wear its heart on its sleeve. What was missing, though, was the volatility of dialogue and busking with the orchestra – in this respect, it was unfortunate that the impact of Maria João Pires’s performance of K595 three days previously was still resonating, reminding us of the delirious range of opportunities Mozart offers, especially in the piano concertos.

Fray was memorably elegant and oblique in the piano’s first entry, but after that shaft of insight he became rather bedded down with the orchestra, emerging almost as a desire for recognition into a vivid and poised cadenza (by Friedrich Gulda). Fray’s stage style – leaning back on a low chair with head hunched over the keyboard and some extravagant elbow movement (shades of Radu Lupu and Glenn Gould) – isn’t going to win any Alexander Technique prizes and was of a piece with his predominantly self-contained approach. He was much more instinctive in the operatic slow movement for which Jaap van Zweden adopted a singer-friendly, easy tempo that hovered in mood teasingly between andante and allegretto. A touch more engagement from Fray with some wonderfully nuanced orchestral playing (particularly the fine woodwinds) and an awareness of the soloist’s right-to-roam would have tipped this movement and the concerto as a whole into a much more layered, broader experience.

Jaap van Zweden. Photograph: IMG ArtistsJaap van Zweden delivered layers and broadness to spare in his thrilling performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony (in Leopold Nowak’s edition of this much tinkered-with score), a work served very well by the Proms over the. As leader of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Van Zweden would have played in umpteen performances of this masterpiece, and this must have contributed to the authority and long-distance cogency that made this particular performance so special. As his series of Bruckner recordings is confirming, Van Zweden has an instinct for the way in which Bruckner’s music connects and grows, producing that certainty that what you hear is only a part of what is going on subliminally; with the endless qualifying of his material and his tortuous, troubled working towards a resolution, Bruckner sometimes seems like music’s answer to Henry James.

The first movement was remarkable for the bleakness of the opening, an unfolding of fragmentary utterances, with shades of grey barely admitting the possibility of light that would have given Shostakovich food for thought. This sense of desolation continued right through to the flat-lining end, an elimination of life-signs superbly realised by the orchestra. There are a few people who prefer the original version’s final peroration to the revision’s open-ended inconclusiveness, but the composer’s second thoughts surely give the symphony a much longer reach. Van Zweden’s brisker-than-moderato Allegro also helped heighten the feeling of unfinished business. Throughout there was a Parsifal-like intensity that had the audience on tenterhooks for its eventual release in the finale (with no inter-movement applause misery). After the scherzo, taken at a terrific lick, and a trio full of Mahler-like wistfulness, Van Zweden settled into a deeply searching reading of the Adagio, his firm pace slowly moving the music away from the doubts of the first movement and approaching the long-jump to the climax with scrupulous preparation, a hair-raising blend of effort, weight, inevitability and achievement. The scale was perfectly judged, and its grandeur well served by outstanding playing.

Another reason I connected with this performance was the suggestion of Bernard Haitink’s self-effacing and patient way with this symphony, not just for the layers of revelation in the Adagio but also in the superbly handled finale, right down to the unmarked but absolutely right applying of the breaks (bar 478 of the Nowak edition) that somehow acts like a hinge to the closing pages. The NRPO more than justified its continuing existence (in doubt earlier this year) in playing of great quality, breadth and awe-inspiring athleticism, and Van Zweden’s lucid, passionate conducting reminded us all what a staggering, and staggeringly original, work Bruckner 8 is.

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