indisposition of the marvellous (but still
to this day under-rated) Wolfgang Sawallisch
meant that his soloist came out in sympathy.
So not only one loss, but exit stage left
also Maurizio Pollini, whose Brahms First
would have been at the very least fascinating.
Enter two artists of the younger generations,
the photogenic wolf-lover Hélène
Grimaud and (mainly) Teldec artist Hugh Wolff.
A real chance for youth to capitalise on indisposition.
a shame it was an opportunity so comprehensively
missed. The opening of the Brahms First Piano
Concerto did not bode well – bad ensemble
was the initial impression. There was a decided
unwillingness on the conductor’s part to subdivide
the beat, no matter what was symptomatic of
a generally unyielding attitude.
Grimaud entered, questions arose as to what
make of piano she was playing on. It sounded
less bright than a Steinway (actually it was!)
and certainly her tone lacked depth – unattractively
thin chorale-like chords were contrasted massively
with the Philharmonia strings’ warmth. Interesting
that Grimaud seems to do all the right things
for depth of tone – the full weight of the
arms etc., yet her variety of sound is so
lacking. Only in the cadenza did Grimaud’s
sensitivity really take off, but this was
not contextualised by tougher sinew elsewhere.
is one of the few artists I have heard make
a Steinway ping like a cheap Yamaha. This
is disastrous if a legato line is desired
(as in the Adagio) and this ugliness was only
emphasised by the Philharmonia’s glow. Grimaud’s
impressive trills could not and did not compensate
for interpretative misdemeanours, including
a prevailing blandness. During this slow movement,
I also became aware of some heavy breathing
and groaning coming from the stage (although
difficult to locate its directionality at
first). Perhaps this is the link between
Grimaud and Pollini – they both make strange
grunts when they play …
difficult to see where the ‘non troppo’ part
of the finale’s tempo indication came in.
Speed rather than rhythmic propulsion was
the order of the day, leading to a clean-cut
cadenza, well-behaved in the manner of so
many shallow young artists. The lack of magic
leading into the re-entry of the orchestra
was by now merely symptomatic of a reading
that did Brahms no favours.
the onset of the performance it was difficult
not to speculate about Grimaud/Wolff versus
a what-might-have-been Pollini/Sawallisch.
It rapidly became obvious this was a complete
waste of time. Grimaud and Wolff may have
the impetuosity of youth on their side, but
this cannot compensate for the vast experience
of the cancelled artists.
Beethoven Seventh was astonishing. It must
be quite an achievement to inspire the Philharmonia
to play several leagues below its real level,
yet Hugh Wolff managed it. A raw-toned opening
indicated the possibility some period-performance
like ideas, but it turned out to be either
plain lack of rehearsal or the Philharmonia
on less-than-autopilot (or both, maybe). It
is not unknown for orchestras to deliberately
play below their best for conductors they
either do not respect (or simply loathe).
String scales were not entirely together (cellos
were Czerny-like). The oboist seemed somehow
to miss out a semiquaver at one point.
usually nice to have the first movement repeat,
but with such band-masterly conducting it
seemed less welcome on this occasion. A sense
of the routine was omnipresent, most obviously
in the continuing slip-shod orchestral playing.
Split notes from horns don’t usually get much
comment, but it is really difficult
to miss the first note of the second horn
solo in the slow movement, unless you’re just
not thinking or caring (or even trying to
miss). Unsurprisingly, like so much of this
performance, it went.
were interesting moments – making the
second horn stop the low neighbour-note figure
in the Trio of the third movement, for example
(by the way, why were there four horn players
on stage for two parts?). This particular
movement was sprightly, just not always together
in the strings. And the finale was strange
in neither having a dance-like character,
nor having great drive (the two main interpretative
roads one can follow). The great cello and
double-bass ostinato went for nothing
and the mass of noise the horns made at the
peroration was just that. With so little interpretative
preparation, the climax could hardly have
been otherwise. It did kind of sum up the
entire evening, though.
Piano Concerto No. 1: Gilels; Berliner Philharmoniker/Jochum
DG 447 446-2
7: VPO/Kleiber DG SACD 471 630-2