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Beethoven: Kit Armstrong (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 19.2.2011 (GPu)

Beethoven, Overture, Egmont

Beethoven, Piano Concerto No.3

Beethoven, Symphony No.6

It can’t be a common occurrence that a conductor should be more than five times older than the soloist with whom he is working. But that was the case on this occasion, with Christoph von Dohnányi now over eighty, and Kit Armstrong seventeen (going on eighteen). It was readily evident that Armstrong (who looks less than his seventeen years) shared Dohnányi’s affinity with Beethoven and the results of their collaboration were largely satisfying.

Christoph von Dohnányi began the evening by a conducting an engaging and powerful performance of the Egmont Overture. There was a strong sense of drama in the opening, dark and heavy, broodingly ominous as it was. The allegro spoke resonantly of defiance and the end had a persuasively Beethovenian quality, in its affirmation of the triumph of energy and will. With the basses to the left and the cellos central, the violins split, the sound had a pleasing clarity. The Egmont overture doesn’t seem to feature on concert programmes as often as it once did, so it was good to hear it here, especially in a performance so imbued in the traditions of Central-European music making.

Joined by the remarkable Armstrong, Dohnányi and the Philharmonia, were strong and supportive partners for the young pianist in Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto. The orchestral opening of the first movement was played with affectionate warmth and the delineation of phrases was admirably clear. The woodwinds, in particular, produced some beautiful colours (though one was never encouraged to think of those colours as being in any way an end in themselves). At his entrance Armstrong played with a notably crisp attack and a pleasing sense of space; his work was full of fluid runs and in the first movement cadenza his sense of pace and rhythm was impressive. At the opening of the Largo, Armstrong’s playing, though fine (and remarkable for a pianist of his years) was just a little on the quick side, and without the fullest sense of meditative reverie that the very finest readings of the passage have; as the writing for the piano became more ornate, Armstrong became more and more convincing. The duet of flute and bassoon towards the close of the movement was especially beautiful. In the finale the high intelligence of Armstrong’s work was evident, and he responded very well to the dramatic element in Beethoven’s writing, though a little less so to the surely undeniable humour of some of the writing. The sense of joyous affirmation after the switch to C major was striking and richly pleasurable. It is surely not surprising that as yet Armstrong’s playing of this emotionally ambiguous concerto lacked the final degree of characterisation, especially in the final movement; his technique and his musical intelligence are already remarkable; at seventeen he is a very fine pianist and it will be no surprise if in a few years time he turns out to be a great one.

Dohnányi’s Pastoral was an almost unalloyed joy from beginning to end. This would, I suppose, count as relatively old-fashioned Beethoven nowadays, but none the worse for that. Dohnányi is not one for trivial conductorial intervention or self-indulgence nor, in this particular case, for excessive pictorialism. Line and energy matter more and the musical argument is uppermost. The first movement, taken fairly quickly, demonstrated his perfect control of dynamics, his balancing of movement and stillness, his sense that this is not a series of picture postcards from the countryside, but a work which engages with a whole series of antitheses – man and nature, town and country, storm and repose (as much matters of inner psychological weather as of the merely external), even, in the broadest sense, the brevity of individual lives and the permanence of Life itself. ‘The Scene by the Brook’ was as much about processes as about pictures – though the aural pictures of nightingale, quail and cuckoo were delightful. This was a reading which made one think of the intimate connections between water and human creativity – enshrined in the presence of the Muses at the holy streams of the Aganippe and the Hippocrene, or embedded in our language when we talk of how ideas ‘flow’, wonder where ideas ‘spring’ from, or talk of a writer’s ‘sources’. In ‘The Merry Gathering of Country People’ the dance was, paradoxically, both boisterous and elegant, strongly communicating a sense of a kind of elemental level of music-making, that sense of a dancing bound-up with nature and natural rhythms, a dancing Beethoven rarely entirely foregoes in even his most sophisticated compositions – this, too, is Beethoven going back to ‘sources’. The storm was splendidly powerful, the trombones – not used hitherto – suddenly changing the whole texture of the sound, their entry very well-managed by Dohnányi. But Nature is finally a comedy not a tragedy – the storm is not its last word. And Beethoven surely invites us to understand something about the cycles of human emotion too, about the relationship between suffering and joy. We return to peace, to that ‘joy’ of which the Romantic poets wrote so often and so powerfully; some of the hymn-like passages near the work’s close were played with a conviction and certainty to which it seemed appropriate to apply the word ‘faith’. This was a ‘Pastoral’ of real power, which didn’t neglect its rural prettinesses, but demonstrated how much more there is to the work. One felt that Dohnányi brought to it the fruit of much experience, musical and otherwise and that the Philharmonia found something like their top form in response to his direction.

Glyn Pursglove


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