Maria João Pires Bows Out Gracefully

22/12/2017

Mozart, Bruckner: Maria João Pires (piano), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Bernard Haitink (conductor), Tonhalle Maag Zurich, 21.12.2017. (JR)

Maria João Pires (c) Deutsche Grammophon.

Maria João Pires (c) Deutsche Grammophon

Mozart – Piano Concerto No.27 in B-flat major K595
Bruckner – Symphony No.4 in E-flat major WAB104

If, earlier in the year, someone had asked me what, musically speaking, I would like for Christmas, then Haitink and Bruckner would not have been far from the tip of my tongue. No surprise then to see that two performances of Bruckner’s mighty Fourth Symphony under Bernard Haitink were complete sell-outs, preceded by some Mozart with his old friend, Maria João Pires.

Rumours were circulating prior to the concert (along with more scandalous and lascivious details about yet another allegedly naughty conductor – Swiss, this time) that this might be Maria João Pires’ final concert appearance; it turned out, as announced on stage, to be her last public appearance in Europe, so presumably her final appearance will be in America.

Pires chose Mozart’s 27th and last piano concerto with which to bid farewell. The concerto was written in the same year that Mozart died (although he did not know the concerto would be his last), and if he played the first performance of the concerto (there is apparently some doubt about this), then it was also his last public performance. Mozart had fallen out of favour in Vienna, he only had a couple of students to teach, and his wife Constanze was ill. Accordingly, there is occasionally a sense of melancholy but it is not an unhappy piece. As to be expected, Pires played it with an even temper, with grace and charm. When not glancing at the keys, she watched Haitink – they were always absolutely together. Haitink kept his accompaniment to a murmur, to give Pires as much limelight as he could. The hall rose, after the final melodious movement, to a lengthy standing ovation. A horn player from the orchestra, Paulo Muñoz-Toledo, presented Pires with what looked (from my seat in the balcony) to be a black and white cake in the shape of a grand piano.

Maria João Pires neither looked nor sounded like an artist remotely ready to retire, but she will know best. She is ‘only’ 73. Her name is synonymous with poise, grace, a lightness of touch and absolute integrity to the score. She will be missed.

In only a few days’ time when we enter 2018, I can write – hard to fathom – that Haitink will be 90 next year. His energy may be slowly diminishing (he sits on a stool now, but mainly between movements) but his authority seems to increase with age and the deep respect, nay reverence with which orchestras hold him, in this music in particular, is evident.

His readings may now be a tad slower, but that brings out all the grandeur of a Bruckner symphony. Haitink kept a steady hand on the tiller; the battery in his internal metronome is still working perfectly. This was a very comfortable and magisterial interpretation, in the best sense. The players all covered themselves with glory, especially the horn section, led by Ivo Gass. Haitink coaxed the timpanist into the gentlest sounds but when power was required (such as in the thrilling hunting Scherzo), it was readily on hand. Haitink showed us Bruckner the mystic, the naïf, and had the audience transfixed – but cheers were muted because this was undoubtedly Pires’ night and no one, especially not Bernard Haitink, wanted to steal her limelight.

John Rhodes

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