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Prom 6 - Beethoven: Paul Lewis (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiří Bělohlávek, Royal Albert Hall, London, 21.7.2010 (BBr)



Beethoven: Overture: Egmont, op.84 (1810)

Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, op.15 (1795 rev 1800/1801)

Overture: The Creatures of Prometheus, op.43 (1801)

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, op.58 (1804/1806)


My first visit this season to the BBC Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, to give the festival its correct name, and yet again I am appalled that the BBC sees fit only to mention Old Timber’s name in small print on the ticket; indeed, so insignificant is his participation in this “World’s Greatest Music Festival” that it appears in the same size of print as the words “TV cameras present”. At his death, Wood gave his name to the BBC to use in connection with the Proms, and it should use it – after all, if it wasn’t for Wood, and Robert Newman, the BBC wouldn’t have this summer festival. I know that it’s the British way to play down our successes and ignore our heroes, but it’s high time Henry J Wood was restored to his rightful position on all Proms publicity. The BBC owes the great man that much.

Gripe over. What about the music? Ironically, a Beethoven night is a return to Wood’ great days. At the start, the Proms set out to educate its audience, as well as entertain it – ands wasn’t this also the BBC’s remit when it started up? In those long gone days when music wasn’t readily available, one of the important features of the Proms was to play the great classics – in such things as Wagner Nights, Beethoven Nights (as well as giving all 9 Symphonies, the Choral usually featured on the penultimate night, a tradition which has now gone by the way) and so on – because one simply couldn’t hear them with anything approaching the regularity we can today. So one has to ask the question, do we really, in 2010, need a Beethoven Night? To fill the Albert Hall, yes perhaps; musically, I am less convinced.

This season Paul Lewis is to be the first pianist ever to play all five of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos in one season. But why stop there? What about Beethoven’s own arrangement of his Violin Concerto as a Piano Concerto? Interestingly, John Lill told me that he had only recently given the American première of this, in California. And Beethoven’s Triple Concerto needs a piano as well. So I wonder exactly what the point of this concert actually was meant to be. Was it to help sell Lewis and Bělohlávek’s recent recordings of the five works? Certainly tonight, the programme sellers were pushing the CDs alongside the programmes. So we return to this concert.

Bělohlávek’s performances of the two Overtures were very good indeed, even if he did lose some tension at the start of the Allegro in Egmont. Otherwise this was a superb performance full of drama and fire. The lighter Creatures of Prometheus had the requisite amount of humour and a fine nimble touch.~

For both of the Concerti, Bělohlávek pared down his orchestra and started the 1st Concerto with the most exquisite pianissimo I have ever heard in this hall. This was a performance full of classical sensibilities, restrained and poetic, but I found it failed to engage me. There’s not much to this music, and it needs a lot of help truly to bring it to life, and a performance as straight forward, one might say as straight-laced, as this isn’t what is required.

The 4th Concerto was a different matter. For the first time in several years I heard a superb interpretation of the first movement, where the structure felt right, and everything fell logically, and most satisfactorily, into place. The question and answer of the short slow movement was dramatic and winsome by turns and gave way to a finale full of high jinx. This was a slightly old fashioned performance with a slowing down for the lyrical music in the first movement and an amount of rubato – sometimes not welcome, I have to admit. But it well worth the trip to Kensington Gore for this alone.

Great things are expected from Lewis, and on the strength of the later work he’s on the right path in terms of interpretation, but  perhaps he needs to work on the earlier piece for it is easy to  see the first concerto as a hang over from the Mozart period.  It isn’t, it’s the start of something new and therefore it needs more work. But Lewis is on the right track and to have the potential for a major Beethovenian in our midst is good news indeed.

Bob Briggs

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