A Disappointing Heldenleben from Dohnányi and the Philharmonia
Beethoven, Strauss: Martin Helmchen (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 27.2.2014 (RB)
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Op 15
Strauss – Ein Heldenleben Op 40
This was the first of a series of concerts by the Philharmonia to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Strauss’ birth. Strauss’ intention with Ein Heldenleben was to compose a work in the mould of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony so the pairing of this great tone poem with Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto was a nice piece of programming.
Dohnányi and the Philharmonia were joined by the excellent Martin Helmchen for the Beethoven. In spite of being published first, the C Major Piano Concerto was composed after the Second Concerto in B Flat and it is on a grander scale although it is an early period work, still very much in the style of Haydn. The Philharmonia were highly attentive to the dynamic markings of the opening and played with commendable Classical restraint. Helmchen struck just the right balance between Classical decorum and Beethovenian earthiness in the opening movement. The passagework was well executed – full marks for playing the right hand octave glissando! – and the pulse very steady, although the tone was a shade brash in one or two places. Beethoven wrote a number of cadenzas for the first movement and Helmchen performed one of the shorter ones, allowing himself a greater degree of expressive freedom and dispatching it with technical assurance. The Largo was played with considerable warmth and grace, Helmchen displaying a highly cultivated poetic sensibility. There was excellent rapport between pianist and orchestra in the final rondo with Helmchen adopting a brisk tempo and playing with zest and vigour. I loved the way he brought out the cheeky wit and slapstick of this movement – the playing was verging on irreverent in one or two places – and the vivid characterisation of the hand crossing and gypsy episodes. The audiences responded enthusiastically and Helmchen gave a rapt and limpid performance of a Bach-Busoni chorale prelude as an encore.
Ein Heldenleben is Strauss’ sixth tone poem and was composed in 1898 at around the same time as Don Quixote. Strauss saw the two tone poems as opposite sides of the same coin with Don Quixote portraying “crazy striving after false ideals” while Ein Heldenleben was “a more general and free ideal of great and manly heroism” – in this case Strauss’ own heroism as the tone poem is highly autobiographical. The work is in one movement and is through-composed although there are six discrete sections representing the hero, his adversaries, his companion, the hero at battle, his works of peace and his retirement from the World. I felt this was a rather disappointing and limp performance from Dohnányi and the Philharmonia. The tempo of the opening section was rather sluggish and the ebullient swagger of the hero did not really come through. The carping of the critics was not as sour-tempered and mean-spirited as it needed to be although the textural details were admirably clear. The key redeeming feature was the superb solo by the leader of the Philharmonia, Zsolt-Tihanmér Visontay, in the section depicting Strauss’ wife Pauline. Visontay is clearly capable of being a concert soloist and he was in turn rapturous and capricious, with the demanding pyrotechnics and double-stopping handled with ease. The battle scene started well with brass and percussion giving the work a much needed adrenaline rush although the brass became a little too prominent. There were some nice features in the final two sections, with the harps producing some silky arabesques and the Philharmonia producing a lovely orchestral sheen before the serene coda.
Overall the Beethoven was first rate but, with the notable exception of the Philharmonia’s leader, the Strauss was not really up to the mark.