Hélène Grimaud Excels in Brahms After a Reminder of the Much-Missed Jonathan Harvey

27/01/2014

Brahms, Harvey Hélène Grimaud (piano); Philharmonia Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 23.1.2014 (CC)

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat, Op. 83
Symphony No. 4 in E, Op. 98
Jonathan Harvey:Wheel of Emptiness
 Scena

Hae-Sun Kang (violin),Philharmonia Ensemble, Antony Hermus (director)

 

The second concert this evening was part of Andris Nelsons’ Brahms Cycle with the Philharmonia and it also enabled us to hear both of the Brahms piano concertos within the space of a few days. Yulianna Avdeeva had given a stimulating performance of the First with the London Philharmonic; here was Hélène Grimaud in the Second.

Grimaud’s performances have been somewhat hit-and-miss in the past, so it was good to encounter her on top form. There was a level of maturity to her playing and a depth of sound that made this a very convincing reading indeed. Of course, Grimaud has recorded the two Brahms concertos with Nelsons for DG (review) so their level of attunement should not come as too great a surprise. Grimaud played everything with consummate ease and a great deal of dignity, judging the projection of lines perfectly. She was never more glorious than in the finale, her gorgeous staccato pure joy. Technically, Grimaud’s control was awe-inspiring. And that she can deliver a reading of such depth is impressive indeed.

The orchestra was not quite up to her standard, the opening horn solo rather careful and the cello solo for the third rather over-egged with vibrato. But Nelsons allowed some subtle string portamenti in the second movement, to good effect, and in terms of ensemble soloist and conductor clearly enjoyed good rapport.

The second half was Brahms’ Fourth Symphony in a performance that, if Nelsons’ gesticulations and swayings were to be believed, would be among the greats. He moves a lot, and none too suavely. Close your eyes and the result was a middle-of-the-road, rather pedestrian reading that sometimes threatened to run out of steam. The second movement (Andante moderato) was probably the best, but even this tended towards the tedious as it became obvious that Nelsons had little special to say.  Nelsons’ eschewing of antiphonal violins was perhaps indicative of his non-authentic approach: this was Brahms viewed very much from our time. While one could enjoy the brilliance of the Philharmonia in the Allegro giocoso and the excellence of the various sections of the Passacaglia finale, this reading effectively failed because of Nelsons’ lack of long-range vision. So it was that the climax towards the end felt structurally unprepared and rather empty. A shame, as the first half had given so much.

The concert was preceded by one of the Philharmonia’s ‘Music of Today’ series. Introduced by the series director, Unsuk Chin, and the writer Jonathan Cross, it focused on the music of the much missed Jonathan Harvey. Cross referred to Harvey’s “extraordinary legacy”, and how right he is. We heard only two works: Wheel of Emptiness (1997) and Scena (1992) for violin and chamber ensemble. What a magnificent reminder of the stature of Harvey this was. The complex textures of Wheel of Emptiness brought with them a palpable intensity. The influence of Stockhausen seemed to lurk in the background in some of Harvey’s gestures. The performance was nothing short of virtuoso. The 1992 Scena is for violin and chamber orchestra. Hae-Sun Kang, a contemporary specialist, despatched the solo part with apparent ease. Perhaps there could have been more grit, even violence, to her playing, but in the lyrical moments she was radiant. The gorgeous, Boulezian scoring of the later sections will linger long in the mind. One could hardly ask for a better pre-concert event.

Colin Clarke

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