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S & H Concert Review

Beethoven Piotr Anderszewski (piano); London Symphony Orchestra/Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Barbican Hall, Thursday, November 20th, 2003 (CC)


Substituting Beethovenís Fourth Symphony for the Coriolan Overture made for a substantially longer than expected evening. In the end, however, it was the Fourth that provided the highlight of the concert. Despite a shaky start (a slow downbeat with ambiguous nadir is a recipe for rugged ensemble, as Gardiner conclusively proved), the allegro vivace was remarkably mobile with impressive dynamism from the inner parts. Structurally, Gardiner was very much in control, the exposition repeat seeming entirely logical. Syncopated accents were full of life Ė the LSO seemed to really enjoy itself. A couple of points gave cause for concern, though: although it looked as if the sound might be bass-led and deep (four double-basses placed behind the woodwind in a row), in fact the balance was remarkably airy, some would say insubstantial; also the timpanistís hard sticks made the harmonically all-important roll that ushers in the recapitulation curiously insubstantial and lacking in mystery.

There must be something about Gardiner and downbeats, because the second movement did not begin together, either. Some suspect clarinet tuning was offset by effective antiphonal string writing. At this latter point, Gardiner seemed intent on exposing the modernist side of Beethoven, as he did also by asking the horns to stop certain notes which would have been impossible to play naturally on a hand horn, thus sharpening the texture.

In fact, this was a performance that improved very much from movement to movement. Gardiner had obviously rehearsed a hierarchy of accents in the third movements that meant that phrases had real directionality and impulse, complementing the quirky Trio perfectly. The finale was a triumph, strings scurrying away. The tremendous drive was the result of accuracy of ensemble, not just speed. Things now augured well: the LSO had warmed up.

Piotr Anderszewski has been making waves in pianistic circles recently. His Diabelli Variations has been well received, as has his new all-Chopin recital (both for Virgin Classics). Alas he was, it would seem, under form. Either that or Beethovenís First Piano Concerto is just not his piece. The orchestra seemed ambivalent in its response: the first octave statement was perfectly together; the second, which follows immediately, displayed the ensemble of the opening of the Fourth Symphony we had just heard. Gardiner conducted four beats to a bar, which at this lick was something of an achievement Ė but did it help? After a good start (scintillating arpeggios, clean pedalling), Anderszewski made one all too aware of just how difficult and tricky Beethovenís writing is (and by extension, just how fine a pianist Beethoven must have been). To hear the difficulties in this manner is emphatically not a good thing. It becomes uncomfortable to listen to. In addition, sforzati were forced, the tone harshened (possibly not deliberately). Talking of forcing, elucidation of part-writing from Anderszewski seemed more the result of what a teacher had told him to do rather than his own discovery. There was no sense of delight in this aspect of his interpretation. An average cadenza was marred by the orchestra not coming in together with Anderszewski at its close.

By now ragged ensemble was becoming de rigeur, so it was no surprise when piano and orchestra disagreed at exactly which point the Largo began. A flowing tempo did not help Anderszewski, as, despite some nice turns of phrase, his rubato frequently emerged as studied. Tellingly, exposed chordal writing was clumsily weighted and accompanimental figures embarrassingly literal. Interplay with woodwind, so often a joy, was laboured. The finale began at a tremendous pace, amongst a flurry of bronchial clearance. Anderszewski responded to Beethovenís infectious rhythms by physically bouncing up and down rather than projecting the life of the music through his fingers. He was unsmiling and unsophisticated Ė the orchestra was streets ahead, and it came as a relief when they had the road all to themselves. This was the first time in a long time that I started to listen to the accompaniment so that I did not have to listen to the pianist. A severe disappointment.

Things could only get better, surely, after the interval? In the end, Gardiner and the LSO gave a mixed account of the famous Fifth. They really launched into the opening motto (together, this time). Stopped horns gave a real timbral edge to this dynamic, raw reading. The second movement, given at a natural flowing tempo, unfortunately exuded little sense of mystery, emerging as a stop-start affair; the third movement brought vigorous playing (brazen brass, virtuoso double-basses) and an undercurrent of determination. But the bridge passage to the finale was not pregnant with expectation (quite an achievement, given Beethovenís careful harmonic prolongation here). The finale itself brought its own surprise. Now glowing and resplendent, the orchestra was suddenly enlivened. Gardiner showed real structural grasp of the musicís processes, but the tempo was so fast that one wondered what would happen at the coda. Well, it was indeed faster than the main body of the finale, but alas the tensile undercurrent so necessary had decided to leave before the end.

A packed Barbican, great expectations Ö I had hoped for more. Much more.

Colin Clarke


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