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S & H Concert Review

Dutilleux, Bartok, Beethoven; Hélène Grimaud (pf); Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Jukka-Pekka Saraste, RFH, 16th October, 2003 (AR)

Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s concert with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe opened with Henri Dutilleux’s Mystere de l'instant for strings and percussion (1989), and this extraordinary score was ideal to show off the subtlety and versatility of the string and percussion sections of the COE.

The sound of the strings can only be described as other worldly and so penetrating that they seemed to seep into the body by a process of osmosis before reaching the ear. The writing for the percussion was subtle and economic, sounding almost stringy rather than metallic. This primordial ‘night’ music reminded one of Bartok’s Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste but taken further and deeper into the recesses of the subconscious. Saraste conducted his forces with elegance and rigour, keeping tight control over every thread of this complex texture of strange sounds.

Hélène Grimaud’s muscular performance of Bela Bartok’s Piano Concerto No.3 (1945) was in stark contrast to her more agile, lyrical and delicate Prom reading under John Adams and the BBC SO. This demonstrates her true artistry: always radically rethinking a score and reinventing the music itself. Under Saraste’s taut and assured baton, Grimaud played with much more force, drama and intensity, producing a firmness of tone in the first movement which perfectly complemented the brass and percussion, and like her Prom performance, she had a genius for integrating her sounds with the woodwind with impeccable timing.

With the Adagio she brought out a starkness and blackness that had an exciting, disturbing and alienating quality to it. After hearing this bleakly emotional performance one wonders how Grimaud will interpret this work again in the future.

Saraste’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in A major Op. 92 was rather clinical and mechanical to the point of sounding like a well-manicured, computer programmed performance. While the two outer movements were rigorously taut, with angular rhythms, they still sounded too anodyne, pristine and civilised, lacking any sense of drama and tension.

Being played by a chamber orchestra the main problem for this ‘late’ Beethoven symphony was textural balance with five ‘cellos and three double basses. In my view this reduction just does not work and allows the violins and violas to predominate. This was clearly evident when Saraste was specifically conducting the violins one moment (which had great presence and weight) and then turned directly to face the ‘cellos and double basses who, in turn, sounded opaque and weightless.

While the tempi for the first movement were perfectly judged there was no real drama and gradual build up of conflicting tensions. Again, this could be due to the lack of dialogue between the violins/violas and the ‘cellos/double basses, which particularly towards the closing passages should sound dark and turbulent with a deep brooding tone.

Another important point: in this more than any other Beethoven symphony, the ‘cello and double-bass line serves as the basic back bone for the metre and pulse of the Seventh. This is why Saraste’s performance made no logical sense and it felt as if we were only experiencing an incomplete fragment of the symphony, analogous to a painting with its background structure missing.

The opening passages of the second movement sounded so opaque and flat that the tension broke: the five cellos, already playing pianissimo, just faded into nothingness. Although this opening passage is meant to be quiet it should still have presence (as heard in Herbert Blomstedt’s and Jeffrey Tate’s studio performances both with the Staatskapelle Dresden on CD).

Saraste’s pacing was somewhat slack, making the music sound static and bland, without the requisite dynamic contrast. The Presto simply lacked punch and rhythmic vitality, with the orchestral textures levelled out: it was almost too dainty and tame to be what Wagner nominated this symphony to be "…the apotheosis of the dance."

The concluding Allegro was by far the most successfully conducted movement. Saraste adopted the correct manically fast tempi and tight rhythms. By far the most outstanding playing of the evening was the breathtakingly precise timpani playing of Geoffrey Prentice. Also outstanding were the three trumpeters Nicholas Thompson, Julian Poore and Alison Balsom who in both first and last movements especially had a fine cutting edge. But the end result was still a performance that seemed under-powered with not quite the tension and drama the composer surely intended.

Alex Russell





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