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Beethoven & Shostakovich: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano); Philharmonia Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi, QEH, 11.4.2006 (CC)

It was a nice idea to programme the overture to Leonore No. 2 as opposed to the much more popular No.3 in the series. The problem was that the orchestra seemed not to share my enthusiasm. A scrappy opening (timpani versus the rest of orchestra) led to a low-mystery slow section characterized by tutti rests, as so often, not counted accurately. In fairness, there was much evidence of careful textural balancing, but the single factor that disappointed was the lack of drama – passages that should sound blood-red came out merely pink. The coda was only 75% there in terms of excitement. A shame.

Shostakovich's First Symphony, that greatest of all graduation exercises, saw Dohnányi missing the work's quirkiness, effectively smoothing over the edges. A nice reference to Ives in the more cacophonous moments was not enough to redeem the experience. If the tricky corners of the helter-skelter Scherzo were well negotiated (this is a virtuoso orchestra, after all), the Lento effectively fell flat on its face due to Dohnányi's lack of large-scale thought. Lacking the breadth it rightly owns, this movement showed most obviously Dohnányi's distinct ambivalence towards this score. A word of praise for the many soloists in this piece is in order, although the list of individual names would be too long. Perhaps the first desk of violins (guest leader Daniel Rowland and Maya Iwabuchi) is in order.

It is amazing how the addition of an artist of real stature can transform a concert, though. Pierre-Laurent Aimard is one of the world's foremost pianists at the moment. The orchestra raised its game accordingly to supports' Aimard's commanding conception. There was never a shadow of doubt that Aimard had assimilated the secrets of this work. His projection was perfectly judged, his filigree astonishingly clear, his first movement cadenza (perhaps surprisingly) on the daemonic side. Interesting how one felt the 'moderato' tempo qualifier very clearly when Dohnányi and his orchestra were on their own – it was only at Aimard's re-entrance that one realized it sounded the perfect speed.

There was a hint of pianistic over-projection for the Beauty and the Beast slow movement (very assertive Beauty, this), but there was no doubt that the finale took off. If communications between conductor and soloist were still not rock solid, there were huge amounts of positives from Aimard – and even the orchestra brought energy to the very end.

Back in February 2003 I expressed some doubts about Aimard's Beethoven Third. The Fourth found him on altogether surer ground.

Colin Clarke




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