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PROM 43: Brahms, Birtwistle, Beethoven, William Dazeley (baritone), Alfred Brendel (pf), Philharmonia Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi, Royal Albert Hall, 17 August 2004 (AN)


Johannes BRAHMS Symphony No.3 in F major (1883)


Sir Harrison BIRTWISTLE Three Brendel Settings (2001-04) *world première of the complete set

  1. There is something between us… (2001)
  2. A sheep addressed me as follows
  3. As the Unnamed awoke (2004)

William Dazeley (baritone)

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat major, ‘Emperor’ (1809)

Alfred Brendel (piano)



This concert topped Hans von Bülow’s famous ‘three B’s’ aphorism with a programme whose only respite from the aforementioned letter was a cursory encore by Schubert (Klavierstück no.2 in E flat major.) Birtwistle provided the go-between for Brahms and his lifelong paragon, Beethoven, and the entire procession was geared towards unveiling the commemorative keynote, veteran pianist and Prom performer Alfred Brendel.


Standard programming schedules were subverted when a symphony preceded first the song suite and then the piano concerto. Brahms’ 3rd is the shortest of his four symphonies but its potency is absolute: the opening tri-chordal succession of alternating modalities stamps out a resolute figure that permeates the entire Allegro con brio and returns for a final reminiscence to round off the fourth and final movement. Dohnányi picked up the various guises of this central motif with delightful precision and never once allowed the orchestra’s wealth and depth of colour to obfuscate its inherent melodic outline.


The orchestra was free-spirited. Dohnányi has been Principal Conductor of Philharmonia since 1997 and their natural compatibility grants a degree of trust that imbued the Rhine-inspired score with life and spontaneity. Solos were unashamedly individual and emotions were not the sole reserve of the strings. Time stood still for the horn solo in the run-up to the Allegro con brio’s recapitulation, unleashing an infectious recklessness to erupt all decorum.


Brahms the Romantic was never more present than for the heartrending Poco Allegretto. Gentle triplets in the upper strings accompanied the yearning melody that passed delicately from cellos to violins. Nuances of passions were accommodated gracefully under the auspices of Dohnányi’s permissive baton. The transition back into the framing lyrical material hushed the dynamic to almost nothing – tender steps to a nostalgic conclusion that sang through distant woodwind timbres.


Brisk but quiet beginnings encapsulated the duality that tossed the closing Allegro between distraction and retrospection. Dohnányi was watchful of the orchestral balance throughout and at times signalled to the brass to compose their strength – with ears as observant as eyes could ever be, it is no wonder that he dispensed with the score.


Sandwiched between the symphony and the concerto was a whimsical song-suite based on the poetry of Alfred Brendel (he is a lesser known author than he is a musician, but Brendel has to this day published no fewer than three books and two poetry collections). The genesis of this suite comes from the occasion of the pianist’s 70th birthday on January 5 2001, when the Philharmonia commissioned a number of leading composers – including Thomas Adès and the late Luciano Berio – to write short orchestral settings to Brendel’s words. Birtwistle composed ‘There is something between us…’ and subsequently added two further settings for the 2004 BBC commission.


Rich and clearly enunciated baritone William Dazeley did the honours. Tailing off as subtly as it opened, ‘There is something between us…’ brought Brendel’s ‘fleeting moment of truth’ into full relief. Dazeley radiated the brass-backed melisma and "eyes dazzled" to the sound of soaring violin harmonies. Voice is set apart from its atmospheric backdrop but all forces serve to enhance the text.


Similarly for the jocular ‘A sheep addressed me as follows…’ whose conclusion is, unsurprisingly, "Baaaah"! And again for the esoteric finale ‘As the Unnamed awoke’ whose deranged swarming and threats from the orchestra climax in collusion with the baritone’s threats of a "cosmic blunder".


The seventy-year-old Sir Harrison Birtwistle took a prompt bow in anticipation of the star-septuagenarian. At 73 years, Brendel chose the good company of a mature Beethoven and took his seat for the so-called ‘Emperor’ piano concerto.


Not the best opening flourish, and perhaps a little too contrived in its affectation, the enormous technical challenges of the Allegro continued to get the better of the soloist. No amount of sensitivity and accuracy from the orchestra could camouflage fudged runs and missed notes. Yet through all the obstacles, Brendel’s composure remained at ease and when the notes did not elude, the effect was inspirational. Slower passages that were executed with a silken elegance were right to prophesy great things from the Adagio.


A profound elegance christened the slow movement – Brendel’s genuine and simple brush painted a painfully tender landscape that was marred only by a sharp brass section whose horn contributor accompanied the piano in uncomfortable disharmony.


The Rondo suffered the same technical inadequacies of the Allegro, even if the general spirit and attack were entirely appropriate. We had here the shadow of a great performance, lacking only in youth and precision.


Of course Brendel deserved the standing ovation – if not for tonight’s performance then for his life’s contribution to music as performer and poet. Proms director Nick Kenyon delivered a valedictory encomium (this would be Brendel’s last Proms appearance) and sealed it with a red book: "This is your Proms life".


Aline Nassif

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