Despite the LSO’s Fine Playing, Luisi Needed to be More Like Toscanini

20/03/2017

Beethoven, Brahms: Igor Levit (piano), London Symphony Orchestra / Fabio Luisi (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 16.3.2017. (GD)

Beethoven –  Piano Concerto in E-flat major, Op.73 (‘Emperor’)

Brahms –  Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op.73

The majestic opening chord of the ‘Emperor’ Concerto for tutti orchestra asserting the home-key of E flat, and the resplendent passage for piano (for Tovey a ‘rhapsodic outburst’) sounded well but for Levit’s peculiarly understated piano part, which was singularly lacking any kind of bravura. To be sure every note registered, but lacked the command of pianists like; Fischer, Casadesus, Serkin, and Horowitz; also the power and finesse of a living pianist like Pollini. And things didn’t get much better as the vast movement unfolded with its contrasting two-theme sonata exposition; the piano’s quasi variation theme with virtuosic figurations and modified harmonies – not to mention the introduction of B minor, which re-morphs into B major and the expected B flat major towards the movement’s grand coda. All this, including the brilliant quasi cadenza, was played well by Levit but I had the impression of a certain pianistic blandness. He failed to project his playing (although this could have been partly to do with Barbican’s restricted acoustic). Also, on occasion, there were some blurred notes.

There was certainly not a note of blandness in Luisi’s conducting and the LSO’s fine playing. Soloist and conductor played together, but I had little sense of dialogue. Levit sounded much better in the sublime second movement in B major; he integrated well with nuanced phrasing of the nocturne-like piano part, blending beautifully with muted strings and songful woodwind. Luisi observed the poco mosso marking, never dragging as is often the case. The E flat rondo finale unfolded with great energy and vivacity, Luisi allowing voices, particularly in the woodwind, to emerge without any kind of underlining. Levit played the cadenza with plenty of brio and sensitivity, although I missed that last degree of dynamism and élan. The coda, in orchestral terms, was exemplary in its note of resolution and resolve. As an encore Levit played a charming rendition of a Beethoven favourite, ‘Für Elise’.

Beethoven certainly did not give the work its ‘Emperor’ title. In fact he would have been disgusted, as he was with the arrogant man who proclaimed himself Emperor. Beethoven later developed a republican political preference. I, for one, would prefer the great concerto to be simply known as Piano Concerto in E-flat, Op.73. But unfortunately arbitrary nicknames have a way of sticking.

I was looking forward to Luisi in Brahms. I remember a fine Bruckner 8 (original version) in 2014 with a resplendent LSO, and some captivating Bellini. Luisi, as principal conductor of the Metropolitan New York, is a splendid opera conductor and good opera conductors tend to be good in the symphonic repertoire. But here the opening broad theme for horns and woodwind punctuated by an important figure in the basses sounded slightly bland, the playing was good, but I wanted the principal horn player to sing more. The main allegro for full strings lacked a sense of forward flow as did the cantabile second subject for violas and celli, again no real sense of lyrical song, as the cantabile marking asks for. Luisi, for reasons best known to him, speeded up at close of the exposition, nowhere indicated in the score.  He played the exposition repeat, which is far more fashionable today than it used to be. But in a performance like this I could have done without it. The quite complex development with its full string counterpoint sounded lumpy and too loud. The timpanist’s zeal should have been checked, sounding more like canon-shot than anything in the Brahms orchestral sound-scape. The climax of the development (with Tovey’s ‘crash of trombones’) was unduly rushed. The LSO’s principal horn played the coda’s long horn cadenza well, but I did miss Dennis Brain’s golden toned playing for Toscanini with the original Phiharmonia in the same hall in 1952. In fact the 85-year-old Maestro’s conducting here, in this ‘live’ performance, was exemplary in every sense.

The second movement came off best. Luisi never lingered, observing the non troppo in the Adagio. Brahms’s mastery of counterpoint, introduced by the woodwind, was well observed. But I missed the lucid and subtle lyricism in the violins, towards the coda. I didn’t hear much of Brahms’s grazioso here! Again the Toscanini performance, mentioned above, constitutes a paradigm of Brahms interpretation. The third movement similarly lacked grazioso and sounded more like a rehearsal run-through. The finale is almost exclusively derived from the opening figure of the first movement and possesses a driving energy and optimistic exuberance that is unique the Brahms. Tonight there were some ensemble problems, especially in the strings’ opening phrase. Luisi maintained a good grasp of the movement’s complex rhythmic structure. But again the timpani sounded ridiculously loud, too much, too soon, meaning that the timpanist should reserve his full dynamic range for the exultant coda. Unfortunately, Luisi rushed the coda (nowhere marked in the score) to produce a kind of ‘grandstand’ ending. (If he has not) I hope Mr Luisi takes the time to listen to the Toscanini recording I have mentioned. Like Luisi, Toscanini was the principal conductor of the New York Metropolitan Opera from 1908 until 1915.

Geoff Diggines

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