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Mendelssohn, Brahms and Schumann:  Hélène Grimaud (piano); Philharmonia Orchestra/Philippe Jordan. Royal Festival Hall, London, 23.4.2009 (CC)

Mendelssohn: Overture, The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Op. 26
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15
Schumann: Symphony No. 2 in C, Op. 61.

Back in 2004, Hélène Grimaud stood in for an indisposed Maurizio Pollini in Brahms’ First Concerto. The results were less than convincing, to say the least, but  what a difference five years can make. The Grimaud of 2009 still plays with a sound that is perhaps less deep, less burnished than one might associate with great Brahms playing, but now it is integrated into an interpretation of some stature. As such, there is an integrity there now that was previously lacking. Grimaud is still young. On the present evidence, she may yet join the privileged Brahmsian ranks. Gone were the blandnesses of 2004, replaced by flashes of insight. The distraction of Grimaud’s groaning as she plays remains, although it has lessened.

There was no doubting Grimaud’s identification with the darkly-drawn orchestral exposition, for her whole upper body was circling, trance-like prior to her entry. If her touch still sounds a little metallic, the prevailing impression was one of grandeur and dignity. Her polyphonic awareness – so vital in honouring Brahms’ textural richness – was exemplary. Technically, nothing posed a problem (stunning double octaves, played with high wrists, textbook use of arm strength), allowing Grimaud’s imagination full rein. Her first solo of the slow movement was beautifully varied in tone as well as just plain beautiful. Some of the writing seemed to point forward to the late Piano Pieces of Opp. 117-119; also, it became clear that Grimaud sees the pianist has having two distinct roles/modes, for which she seemed to become two different people – Grimaud the soloist, and Grimaud the exemplary accompanist (as in a magical passage that foregrounds two clarinets). The finale showcased Grimaud’s strength, both physical and inner. Trills were staggeringly good, full of energy, and yet she could be playful, too. Clear long-range thought meant that the close was perfectly prepared.

The conductor’s contribution was perhaps less impressive. Philippe Jordan has done something that few conductors do these days. He spent time with non-major league opera houses (Ulm and Graz), learning repertoire and gaining experience. Refreshing to note, but there were distinct teething problems here. The long orchestra opening of the Brahms confirmed what the Mendelssohn Overture had indicated: plenty of lovely moments, but the music kept drooping. “Drooping” means it lost direction, directly due to a lack of overall structural awareness and an over-reliance on attention to the moment at the expense of the whole. So, in the Mendelssohn a molten clarinet solo and some beautiful phrasing worked against an impression of a patchwork quilt in sound. This happened again in the Brahms opening. There were a couple of uneasy corners between soloist and orchestra, but generally the orchestra was disciplined in delivery of the notes.

It was a brave choice to put Schumann’s Second Symphony in the second half, then because this least-heard of Schumann’s four symphonies is also tricky to bring off. Jordan conducted from memory and he does, indeed, clearly know the score inside out. He seemed to have the measure of the piece more than anything heard so far, too. The gentle introduction breathed well, and he also found plenty of drama. Musical smiles were heard against an angst-ridden background full of shadows. Rhythmically, the performance was tight, as it was in ensemble terms (the scampering violins of the scherzo, for example). The highlight was the slow movement, with its poignant oboe solo (Gordon Hunt) and its wonderful clarinet contributions (Mark van de Wiel). Jordan highlighted the Mendelssohnian elements of the finale before bringing the performance to a grand conclusion. If only we had had that level of orchestral integrity in the first half.

Colin Clarke

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