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Seen and Heard Concert Review
Kurtág, Beethoven, R. Strauss Alfred Brendel (piano); Philharmonia Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi, RFH, Thursday, September 23rd, 2004 (CC)
This was a nicely varied programme to celebrate Christoph von Dohnányi’s 75th birthday, and rather wonderful to see Kurtág’s Stele (1994) there right at the start. The booklet notes (by Thomas Adès) functionally explained the basis of the piece – that ‘Stele’ is Ancient Greek and describes a stone slab bearing inscriptions to either an event or to a person. Indeed, the final part of this tripartite work is an arrangement of a piano piece Kurtág wrote as a response to the death of his teacher András Mihály and it does indeed have more than an element of the processional about it.
The 14-minute work acted as a reminder of the vastly individual imagination of its composer. Buzzing counterpoint, irreverent trombones, punctuating whips and the rather disturbing sound of an upright piano (used so the depth is taken away from the sound, presumably) all conspired to make a huge impression. Kurtág’s compositional hand is magnificently confident and steady. His ear, too, is very aware of the beauty of sound in the simultaneities he chooses (this was particularly so in the finale, which Dohnányi imbued with a Mahlerian sense of the vast.) Magnificent.
Alfred Brendel was 70 in 2001, so between them soloist and conductor had a combined age of nearly 150 years. Of course Brendel has a lifetime of experience to bring to bear on Beethoven, a composer he has been associated with throughout his long career. The pianist’s age showed in various ways. On the positive side, Brendel’s cantabile was magnificent and his imagination was undimmed. Some technical slips apart, Brendel’s view seemed to be of an autumnal Beethovenian C minor. It was a concept that perhaps suited his years, as there could be no young man’s fire here, by definition. Mezza voce tone was magical, voice-leading in the cadenza a model of its kind. But was it C-minor Beethoven?
No surprise then that the E major slow movement brought pure magic at the opening. But a surprise did come with Brendel’s dynamic level at his re-entry. Surely too loud (and equally surely no technical miscalculation,) it put me in mind of a performance I attended by John Ogdon at the Barbican, years ago – Ogdon played the entire slow movement of this concerto fff and martellato. Brendel was not even close to either, but he was sufficiently eyebrow-raising to enable the comparison to be made. Perhaps he wanted to mark contrast with the majority of the Largo, yet even there I have heard Brendel himself better – notably the long, soliloquising single line that should diminuendo to absolutely nothing. Brendel tried, but it was no moment to make one hold the breath.
A fairly leisurely finale was largely robbed of Beethoven’s wicked wit, cheek only really surfacing briefly in the coda. Always nice to hear Brendel, but he somehow on this occasion did not seem too involved.
Finally, Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, that bath of self-indulgence (how many self-quotations in the final section – 31 from nine works?) It brought out the best in Dohnányi, however. There was a real sense of the heroic to the flowing opening paragraphs, with just a hint of the unyielding. A nice jibe to us critics followed – spiky, evil and more than a little petulant.
James Clark’s solo work as representative of Pauline (the composer’s wife) was sterling. She (Pauline), like the critics, could be spikily petulant (in Strauss’ portrayal, at any rate); but she also had wit and tenderness as part of her emotive vocabulary, and all this became clear here.
Technically, the Battle was superb, with trumpets cutting through the orchestral texture like knives (great off-stage contributions, too.) Intentional cacophany can be great fun, Dohnányi seemed to be saying, and there never really was any doubt as to who the victor would be. Yet the eventual emergence of a unison was not the triumphal moment many conductors make it out to be. Only in the final passages did Dohnányi allow himself to relax into Strauss’ warmth, and the more effective they became because of it.
This was not an epoch-making Heldenleben. It was one that contained many moments of loveliness, but not one that encompassed Strauss’ world comprehensively. And it was that that accounted for the niggling sense of dissatisfaction at the end.
Kurtág: Abbado DG 447 761-2
Beethoven Piano Concerto 3: Pollini; VPO/Böhm (apparently currently deleted)
Ein Heldenleben: Haitink and the Concertgebouw is a good, solid recommendation (Philips 50 464 743-2)