United Kingdom Beethoven, Bruckner: David Fray (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 11.4.2013 (GDn)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3
Bruckner: Symphony No. 3
Every cloud has a silver lining, and concert-goers disappointed that Kurt Masur had pulled out of this evening’s concert due to ill health will have found a large measure of consolation in the fact that his replacement was the wonderful Thomas Dausgaard. Even so, from an interpretive point of view, this entailed a shift to the far end of the spectrum. Where Masur embodies the old-school values of robust and weighty orchestral warhorses, Dausgaard is an advocate of the more modern slick, no-nonsense approach. However, they both excel in the same repertoire, so it was only the orchestra that had to make a major adjustment. The audience was in for an equally memorable evening, albeit one that finished a full quarter of an hour earlier than advertised.
Dausgaard only really came into his own in the second half, and in the first he diligently followed pianist David Fray in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. Given the minimal communication that Fray offered, and the erratic tempo changes he often employed, this did mean that the conductor had to stay on his toes. Fortunately, Dausgaard’s professionalism shone through, and against the odds, the orchestra followed every idiosyncrasy that Fray threw at the piece.
An array of contradictions surrounds David Fray and his piano playing. From his publicity photos you’d imagine him to be a tall, well-built man, when in fact he is a short and slight twenty-something. His posture at the piano is very like Glenn Gould: he sits at a small stool hunched over the keys in a serious manner. Yet his playing is surprising louche, with slow trills, throwaway phrase endings and some erratic, even arbitrary-sounding, rubato. His attack is quite definite, with each note picked out with precision and focus, yet his phrasing is almost always based on a smooth, even legato. It’s an approach that suits Beethoven’s Third for the most part, imparting heroic qualities to the first movement, valuable structure to the second, and a sense of surprise to each of the contrasting episodes in the finale. He lacks subtlety, though, rarely varying his articulation and only adjusting dynamics through emphatic crescendos or sudden shifts. There was some delicacy in the slow movement, but precious little poetry. The finale was the best part of this performance, and here Fray demonstrated how he could vary attacks within a single phrase to bring out structurally significant notes. But this was a proficient performance more than it was an imaginative one, and for the most part was lacking in interpretive insights.
All of which made Dausgaard’s Bruckner Third all the more revelatory. It is fashionable these days to take Bruckner fast, not to linger on the climaxes or the caesuras, and to avoid sentimentality at all costs. Dausgaard approached the music in a similar manner, but there were big differences and they were all for the better. Dausgaard brought a chamber music sensibility to Bruckner. So, clarity of line was paramount, and he had little interest in expansive climaxes and codas. But, unlike many latter-day Brucknerians, he was interested in the poetry and strove to bring out the beauty in every phrase. So, at the opening, for example, the music grew out of nothing and the trumpet solo had a wonderful atmospheric distant quality. True, he did then go on to bulldoze a couple of the grander tuttis but the elegance that he brought to the rest of the movement more than compensated. As ever, the Philharmonia strings really excelled in their unity and tonal beauty, which allowed Dausgaard to take the second movement quickly, while retaining its slightly dispassionate elegance. The scherzo was the real highlight of this performance. Dausgaard went to extraordinary lengths to shape every phrase, freeing up the meter to allow each of the dance episodes its own, often rustic and always highly characteristic, identity. The finale too was fast, and perhaps a little too fast. But again, the precise shaping of each phrase, the carefully graded crescendos and the always-clear orchestral textures allowed the music’s structure and its poetry to come through with clarity and elegance. Some may view Dausgaard’s Bruckner as controversial or antithetical to the composer’s wishes – I suspect Kurt Masur would be of this view – but the coherency of his approach cannot be questioned. Nor indeed can the intensity and the dramatic power that he drew from the symphony, even when working in what is essentially a chamber music idiom.