United Kingdom Beethoven: Maria João Pires (piano), Orchestra Mozart, Bernard Haitink (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 1.10.2013 (MB)
Overture: Leonore no.2, op.72a
Piano Concerto no.2 in B-flat major, op.19
Symphony no.4 in B-flat major, op.60
The ‘back story’ to this concert almost requires a chronicle to itself, though mysteries remain; indeed, almost the only thing that is clear is, sadly, the ill health that led Claudio Abbado to absent himself. Quite how Maria João Pires, who had withdrawn many months previously, citing ‘scheduling difficulties’, somehow managed to return to the fold once Abbado had withdrawn has not been explained. (A squabble is a possible explanation, but the apparently level-headed Pires does not seem the most likely candidate for such behaviour.) Much to the astonishment of those of us who had bought tickets – I had done so on the day they went on sale to the public – Martha Argerich had been announced as a substitute; she presumably withdrew on the grounds that her long-standing musical partner was no longer able to participate. Yet again, a hope that I might hear Argerich in the concert hall was confounded. By the time that Bernard Haitink was announced as a replacement for Abbado, the original programme, nicely composed of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven – as it would happen, hardly foreign territory to Haitink – had been replaced with an all-Beethoven listing, though I think the precise nature of the programme may have undergone yet another alteration. (My memory has become a little hazy, and the tale is a little too convoluted.) Constant, however, was the participation of Abbado’s Orchestra Mozart, in what I believe – though I should happily be corrected – to have been its London debut.
The problem and fascination I have with Beethoven’s two earlier Leonore Overtures is that I tend to hear them as ‘deviations’ from the third, so seared is that masterpiece – more a symphonic poem than a ‘mere’ overture – into my consciousness. Yet the freshness of the Orchestra Mozart’s performance and Haitink’s musical integrity conspired to have me soon hearing Leonore II as groping towards its successor and eventually to hear it more or less as a thing-in-itself. There was real orchestral tumult; this was not a performance that condescended towards Beethoven. Woodwind delicacy, a hallmark of the entire concert, was equally remarkable, likewise the translucent quality that spoke of this as Abbado’s orchestra. It was a variegated performance that yet did not lack (relative) weight. Moreover, the trumpet call sounded as though it meant something, contrasting strongly with memories of Leonore III at ENO’s recent Fidelio, Edward Gardner there having harried the overture so that in musical terms it went for little. The end sounded a kinship with the Siegessymphonie from Egmont – a kinship which, so it happened, would be renewed at the end of the concert.
The orchestra emerged smaller for the Second Piano Concerto, first violins reduced from seven desks to a mere five, and so forth. As the first movement began, it sounded wonderfully spruce, but it took a little time, once Pires had entered, for balance to be achieved. To begin with, she sounded a little insistent, even heavy-handed, though the problem was soon rectified, but for much of the movement, rather to my surprise, she sounded more soloist than collaborative musician. The cadenza was certainly projected on a grand scale, seeming to want to associate itself, understandably, with a later, less ‘Mozartian’ – protest the typology though I might – Beethoven than Haitink and the orchestra were providing. (And I do not think that was only a matter of the admitted stylistic disjuncture that Beethoven’s cadenza, written later, already tends to suggest.) Any tensions, however, seemed fully resolved by the gravely beautiful opening to the slow movement. Haitink ensured that it was a slow movement in the truest sense, a matter of character as much as of tempo; he and Pires proved equally adept at maintenance of the long line. Neither for the first time nor the last, we savoured the delectable quality of the orchestral woodwind. The finale was nicely pointed throughout, woodwind offering true enchantment. What I missed was the sense of risk, which often though not always pays off, that Daniel Barenboim brings to this music.
The first movement of the Fourth Symphony benefited from a similar level of musicianship, if anything heightened further, both from Haitink and the orchestra. An expectant introduction exposed Beethoven’s building-blocks even before the exposition proper, which thereby proposed a change of register, of impetus, whilst undoubtedly remaining cut from the same cloth. This performance was detailed without pedantry, urgent without being unduly driven. The development section sounded both wondrously, thrillingly concise and yet directed towards its goal, the recapitulation then registering as necessary and newly-minted. I might have preferred something bigger-boned, but there were compensations, not least of which once again was the woodwind section, which here and elsewhere seemed to evoke the world of the Pastoral Symphony. The slow movement flowed in a good sense – as opposed to ‘flowing’ as a euphemism for being taken far too fast. Haitink, as it happens, took it at a relatively swift tempo, but made that work, not least through his communication of line. A buoyant scherzo communicated understanding that rhythm and harmony must work together, indeed become one. The finale once again proved eminently musicianly and offered in that respect a well-nigh perfect realisation of perpetual motion. What I missed here and to a certain extent throughout the symphony was a sense of struggle and ultimately the hard-won quality of victory. (Again, Barenboim is one of the few conductors alive still able to have us believe in that.) It was, ultimately, a performance which, whilst undoubtedly Haitink’s, seemed to a certain extent accomplished through Abbado’s means.
In that context, the encore, the Egmont Overture, offered something of a surprise with its darker, weightier character. All of the virtues of the rest of the concert were present, but more seemed to be at stake. The two extra horns certainly made their mark, but so did the entirety of this excellent orchestra. When the moment of triumph sent a shiver down my spine, I realised that to have been the first such occasion of the evening. Beethoven’s spirit at last was fully realised.