Lucerne Festival (1) – Elgar a Brave Choice in Lucerne
Beethoven, Elgar: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor), Rudolf Buchbinder (piano), Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern, Lucerne 30.8.2014 (JR)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor”
Elgar: Symphony No. 2
Andris Nelsons chose not to start this concert with Wagner, as in Birmingham a few days ago, but with the “Emperor” Concerto; perhaps, given the choice of main work, the Festival organisers were concerned about ticket sales. Rudolf Buchbinder proved unsurprisingly to be a consummate Beethovenian; he has played all 32 Sonatas in Vienna, Berlin, Zurich, Munich, St. Petersburg and, this summer, at the Salzburg Festival. Buchbinder’s playing went to the heart of this majestic work; pauses were judicious, finger-work exceptionally deft and accurate. Nelson’s conducting was, as ever, a mite overly energetic: if I had doubts about the performance, they were not directed at the soloist but a mismatch of styles, Nelson’s harder-edged, impetuous and flamboyant accompaniment not always meeting the style of Buchbinder’s more magisterial, contemplative and cogent reading, with judicious use of pedal. The pairing came off best in the reflective passages of the work, as in the delicacy of the Adagio, though often the high voltage beginnings and endings impressed.
By way of encore Buchbinder gave us the forceful Finale of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata (No. 8), exquisitely played. Buchbinder was in his element here; the audience was utterly enraptured.
The second half belonged to Elgar, a brave choice for the Swiss audience. The symphony does not convince everyone; in Lucerne, even given its international mainly central European audience, knowledge of Elgar is mainly confined to the Enigma Variations, “Pomp & Circumstance”, and the Cello Concerto. Few know his symphonies, those few probably knowing his First rather the more personal, possibly more complex, less dramatic Second. They were therefore happily unconcerned with questions of suitable tempi which troubled my fellow reviewer in Birmingham but rather whether they could fathom Elgar’s musical ramblings, most evident in the long first movement. The programme note put it succinctly: “Elgar was able to construct a symphony of remarkable scale and persuasive form out of disparate material…his compositional art seems like an ingenious puzzle….musical snapshots are assembled in the manner of a mosaic”.
It was clear from the outset that Elgar was in the orchestra’s blood (they played the work, conducted by the composer himself, at the orchestra’s inaugural concert in 1920) even if Nelsons was a relative new Elgarian. Nelsons, always a joy to watch, impressed again at the beginnings and endings of each movement but with some slow tempi attention sagged somewhat in the central nocturnal parts of the long first movement. The orchestra was in extremely good form, brass blazed, trombones thundered and the bass drum was nicely prominent. The Larghetto was sensitively played, with “Parsifal” coming to mind, as did visions of the men in the trenches. Nelson fared best in the last two movements, enjoying the scampering strings of the Rondo and the military might at the climax, with its attacking gunshot tambourine. The final “maestoso” was suitably majestic. Judging from the vociferous applause, the music ultimately convinced many, despite some of its bewildering elements – there were however more than the usual number of early leavers, who – given the concert’s early start – were not rushing for a train home. Nelsons slowed right down at the end and I thought the effect was persuasive even if unusual. It meant the ending was especially radiant and tender; I did however object to his holding on to the silence after the last note for rather too long, a new rather unwelcome habit amongst (some) conductors. It is poignant and appropriate after a “War Requiem” but not, I felt, an Elgar 2.