Thought-Provoking Brahms from Aimard

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms and Beethoven: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 6.6.2013 (MB)

Brahms: Piano Concerto no.1 in D minor op.15
Beethoven: Symphony no.3 in E-flat major, ‘Eroica’, op.55

The opening of the first movement of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto is one of those passages that sears itself into the memory; it is as redolent of the struggles Brahms experienced in writing the work as of anything more metaphysical, though both varieties surely play their part. In this performance it was imposing – how could it not be? – but swifter than one often hears: perhaps a portent of a more ‘Classical’ than ‘Romantic’ Brahms, to employ an all-too-easy typology? Not really, for Christoph von Dohnányi certainly knew how to yield; rather, it was indicative of an approach neither encumbered by ‘performing tradition’ nor attempting novelty for its own sake. There were mood swings, certainly, but they seemed to emerge from the music rather than being imposed upon it. Throughout, there was estimable clarity from the Philharmonia. Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s entry was similarly devoid of grandstanding. If not exactly reticent, for such would be absurd, then he was content to let the score, or rather his performance of the score, do the work. One might consider the performance as a whole to have been of a modernistic, ‘objective’ variety, though that description tends to beg more questions than it answers. At times, Aimard perhaps tended – a little too much? – towards recounting the story in a twenty-first-century third person. Did I miss the first person? I am sure I should if I always heard it like that, but it was in many respects refreshing to hear a more ‘observed’ performance. And indeed, if one were to be given the choice between silly ‘virtuoso’ rhetoric and musicianly delight in Brahms’s material, who in his right mind would not choose the latter? There were occasions when I might have wished for more fire from all concerned, but they were outnumbered by those in which it was possible to enjoy Brahms, if not ‘as written’, always a pernicious fiction, but without the perverse interventionism of pulling the score around arbitrarily that infects so many performances of his music at the moment. The Philharmonia’s wind instruments deserve especial mention for their own very well-judged brand of Classical Romanticism.

The slow movement benefited from a similar lack of self-indulgence. Aimard struck an excellent balance – or generated a compelling dialectic – between ‘simplicity’ of expression and the ‘involved’ complexity of Brahms’s thematic working. If the orchestra were often relatively subdued, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Besides, Brahms’s music and his thought lie mostly beneath the surface, as one could hear, assuming a willingness to make the necessary effort. In that context, the great climax could be appreciated, indeed felt as absolute necessity, all the more strongly. Again, a fine balance was struck in the finale: between weight and fleetness of foot. It was perhaps surprisingly flexible in tempo, with a strong flavour of the ‘Hungarian’ Brahms. This, like the rest of the performance, was certainly not ‘heart-on-sleeve’ Brahms, but that is a good thing; there are few worse musical experiences than having Brahms sound like Tchaikovsky. (Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, often benefits from being made to sound a little more like Brahms.) One notable slip from the pianist could readily be forgiven, especially given that it seemed to incite Aimard to greater precision and forcefulness thereafter, heralding if not quite the end, then a magnificent account of the cadenza. This, then, was a genuinely interesting performance. I am not claiming that I should always wish to hear it like this, but Gilels and Jochum, to take perhaps the finest recorded performance, will not disappear any day soon. Above all, I was made to think.

I wondered how such an approach would transfer itself to the Eroica. After all, the last thing we in our present condition need is non-committal Beethoven, which might have been a danger. However, whilst Dohnányi’s account might certainly be better described as having belonged to the more ‘objective’ end of the spectrum – or better, a spectrum – it nevertheless proved highly involving, again through intelligent and often intense immersion in the musical material and its development.This was not the Beethoven of, say, Barenboim or Furtwängler, but by the same token there was nothing neutral to it either. It is probably fair to say, moreover, that the Philharmonia strings were on better form here than in the Brahms, when on occasion they had sounded a little wiry; indeed, the orchestra as a whole sounded wonderfully fresh. Praise of articulation often seems today to imply something fussy, even – God help us! – Harnoncourt-like; here, however, there was no point-scoring, just a fine degree of attention to the notes and to their particular connection with one another. From the very opening, the Philharmonia offered playing that was cultivated in the best sense: not unduly polite, but by the same token preferring musical over gestural means. Subtlety of dynamic contrast was a particular hallmark of Dohnányi’s approach, allied to rather than opposed to the work’s structure. Likewise, rhythm was allied to harmony rather than overpowering it, as too often happens in fashionable present-day performances.

The slow movement certainly told of tragedy, but in general – though not generalised – terms rather than the specifically political. This was not Wagnerian Beethoven, but crucially it was not emptied of its content; one was moved through means it would be tempting to relate to ‘absolute music’, were that not now so ideologically tainted a term. The Philharmonia woodwind often sounded exquisite, yet not in a deliberately ear-catching fashion, being fully integrated into the musical argument. The scherzo was fast without being hard-driven or frenetic. Rhythm again proved generative within a broader musical context. Horns were everything one might have hoped for in the trio, vernal heralds of German Romanticism, without entirely having left their Mozartian roots behind – much like the work itself. In the finale, Dohnányi judged very well the balance between individual characterisation of variations and longer line. One neither forgot that, obvious point though this might be, that this is a set of variations, nor lost sight of Beethoven’s musical teleology.

Mark Berry