Last Minute Substitute Soloist Saves the Day

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Beethoven, Tchaikovsky: François-Frédéric Guy (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Edward Gardner (conductor). St. David’s Hall, Cardiff,  13.2.2013 (PCG)

Beethoven:  Fidelio: Overture
Beethoven:  Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor
Tchaikovsky:  Symphony No 4 in F minor

At the beginning of this concert Edward Gardner demonstrated his operatic experience in a well-judged, well-paced and well-balanced performance of Beethoven’s final overture to Fidelio. Woodwind and horns came through the textures ideally despite the presence of a large body of strings; there was no reduction of Beethoven to classically chamber proportions here, although for the concerto that followed the number of strings was reduced. Unfortunately, for various reasons the rest of the concert was a matter of swings and roundabouts.

As late as the morning of the concert the soloist in the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto was still being advertised as the young up-and-coming pianist David Fray. However on arrival at the hall notices posted on the doors advised us that his place would be taken by the seasoned veteran François-Frédéric Guy, although no further explanation was offered. Given the short period of rehearsal which was doubtless available following this last-minute substitution, it is probably unfair to complain about the strictness of tempo that was maintained during the first movement, given the essential need to keep soloist and orchestra together; but it was not until the cadenza at the end of that movement that Guy was able to demonstrate any feeling of warmth, romantic rubato or poetic sensitivity. He began the second movement Largo very slowly indeed, and when the orchestra entered Gardner moved the piece along rather more briskly; but there was now much more give-and-take between the piano and orchestra and the result was most effective. In the coda of the movement Guy and Gardner found reconciliation in a very slow and poetic rendering, and in the ensuing rondo they successfully struck sparks from each other.

As an encore Guy gave us the concluding rondo from the Beethoven Pathétique Sonata, displaying an even greater sense of freedom with plenty of tone but also a lightness of touch. But one does wish that soloists giving encores would tell the audience in advance what it is they are going to play. No matter how well known the piece, there will inevitably be some listeners who simply don’t know the music; and there will be others who spend the time racking their brains trying to work out what it is they are listening to, rather than concentrating on the music itself. In the end it is a matter of sheer consideration for the audience, for whom after all an encore is meant to be a reward for appreciation shown.

After the interval Gardner again demonstrated his operatic credentials in a fiery performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. While not making any startling innovations he made a conscious attempt to put his own personal stamp on this well-known warhorse, as with his introduction of an echo effect at the Ben sostenuto passage in the first movement where the violins waltz delicately over a solo timpani accompaniment. And he earned bonus points for sticking to Tchaikovsky’s scoring at the return of the Fate fanfare in the last movement, properly doubling the trumpets with woodwind rather than (as so often) leaving the trumpets to vulgarly have the field to themselves. The slow canzona second movement could perhaps have been more affectionately phrased, but the scherzo was properly light as thistledown and Gardner resisted the temptation to turn it into an orchestral showpiece at the expense of melodic line – although the woodwind, and especially the piccolo, gave a proper bravura display. However Gardner also adhered in the last movement to the bad old practice of inserting pauses after each of the reappearances of the opening material, before the folksong reappears on oboe and strings. This surely is wrong. Tchaikovsky’s intentions are clearly that the folksong should proceed remorselessly on its way without any diminution of tension until it is catastrophically interrupted by the aforementioned appearance of the Fate fanfare, and to introduce pauses (presumably originally intended to avoid any overhang of echo from the preceding percussion crash) is to undermine that effect. I don’t know when this habit started – it goes back a very long way – but it remains unfortunate. What however was good was the manner in which Gardner introduced a sudden drop in volume seventeen bars before the end, allowing the orchestra to make a crescendo and accelerando towards the final chord. It is not in Tchaikovsky’s score, but it works superbly, and it brought resounding cheers from the audience to set the seal on a rousing and stupendously well-played performance.

Paul Corfield Godfrey