mon 21/09/2020

Pires, London Symphony Orchestra, Haitink, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Pires, London Symphony Orchestra, Haitink, Barbican Hall

Pires, London Symphony Orchestra, Haitink, Barbican Hall

Mozart has more vitality in eight bars than Bruckner in an entire symphony

It was Groundhog Day. Murray Perahia, due to play the Schumann Piano Concerto last night under Bernard Haitink, was indisposed and at the last minute Maria João Pires rushed in with Mozart 27. Just the same happened in 2006, strangely enough, with exactly the same three artists and orchestra. As you ponder that for a coincidence, what this shows is the powerful bonds that exist between musicians, between Haitink and these two pianists, whose virtues have much in common: impeccable lucidity and light-filled emotion.

But it didn’t help last night’s programme at all unfortunately. For this pair of concerts (the other is tomorrow night), the Piano Concerto is the prelude to the big orchestral work presented by Haitink with the LSO, this time Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, the Romantic - and putting Mozart K595 rather than Schumann next to Bruckner is fatal, like boring a hole in a huge ship with the most refined of needles, and watching the vast container slowly sink into the sands.

Mozart's last piano concerto, and even more in a performance such as last night’s, with Pires, Haitink and an edited LSO spinning silk together into sublimely soft ribbons of beauty, makes Bruckner seem positively hippopotamine. Pires, now 67, is a tiny woman with tiny hands, but her conjuring of rippling textures and colours is compelling, responding to ornament and phrase with soft little curls into nothingness. The sound is intimate yet wholly significant, it penetrates, it blows, comes and goes, wonderfully tapered and unforced.

In total rapport with her, the 82-year-old Haitink’s undemonstrative conducting style speaks of much exacting kitchen work beforehand to prepare these delicacies on the LSO’s perfectly tuned violins, or the way a flute’s trill will exactly foreshadow Pires’s handling of that very phrase on the keyboard. His right hand provides a firm beat, his left gently turns an invisible volume control, or pinches specks of time to suspend them by the merest fraction.

One of the most supportive of opera and vocal conductors, as the Royal Opera knew through his stewardship from 1987 to 2002, he applied that great listening responsiveness here constantly. This was a dialogue between pianist and conductor, exchanging thoughts with the fullest of feelings but the lightest of touch and pulse. In the second movement Pires’s opening piano phrase had a soft query to it; Haitink, without raising the volume, repeated the phrase in the orchestra with a warm, answering reassurance. Never was Mozart more sublime than when wrapping a nugget of choking sadness in smiling major keys. And if I had to miss Perahia due to indisposition, how happy I am his replacement was Pires, who on the last two occasions I went to hear her cancelled due to indisposition.

Mozart has more vitality and momentum in eight bars than Bruckner in this entire symphony

But then it was Bruckner, alas, another story as far as I am concerned. His Fourth Symphony, entitled by him the Romantic, is more about medieval Romance than the romanticism of his own century. Think huge castles, a vast orchestra - the LSO virtually doubled in size from the Mozart - think big dark forests and self-conscious hunting parties on horses barded and caparisoned to impress. It begins with a call on a single horn in a shimmer of violins, a call of a fifth, which at first beckons invitingly into a picturesque evocation of the sun rising over woods, dispelling the dawn mists, awakening the land and so on. And for a period the musical painting proceeds involvingly enough, while Haitink used his veiled arts to layer mists and raindrop-spattered cobwebs over a charming sylvan picture.

However, the repetitiousness of that horn call becomes irksome before long, and the self-consciousness of Bruckner’s effort to build his long walls and display the grandeur of his estates becomes overwhelming. Is this Haitink's fault for being so measured and temperate? I fear it's the composer who keeps putting up signs everywhere, "nicht zu schnell" - not too fast. True, the second movement has a lovely viola unison melody over softly plucking violins, played with immaculate intonation and murmuring tone by the LSO section, brushed with feathery tension by Haitink, and there are interesting passageways and tracks throughout the undergrowth. But the third movement is a long fanfare going nowhere, many horns and trumpets, the tutti orchestra fanfaring fortissimo. One expects something important to happen, but the middle section Trio is a soporific flute lollop, most definitely nicht zu schnell.

It seems all of a keeping that the fanfares herald so grandiloquent a final movement, a half-hour monument of jumbo-sized orchestration, dominated by the brass and wind. But how flat and immobile this music is, all dogged blocks and ground plans, the solo horn’s call now no longer surprising. The symphony ends, around 75 minutes after it began, with the same horn call it started with, leaving a terrible sense of having been frozen at the same beauty spot for all that time. The LSO played this epic with every drop of effort, particularly the solo horn player, David Pyatt, in an enormously taxing part, but I’m not converted. For my unfeeling reaction, I’m afraid I point to that man Mozart, who has more vitality and momentum in eight bars than Bruckner in this entire symphony. Schumann would, after all, have been a less fatal pairing.

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