Classicism Takes Precedence over Romanticism in Schumann’s Piano Concerto

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Schumann: Stephen Hough (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 27.11.2014 (PCG)

Beethoven – The Creatures of Prometheus: Overture
Schumann – Piano Concerto
Beethoven – Symphony No 3 ‘Eroica’


This concert might be regarded as a reversion to the tried-and-trusted formula of overture-concerto-symphony which was for many years almost the epitome of the concert as given by a classical symphony orchestra. As indeed it was, with no real connection between the three works featured other than their status as standard pieces of the symphonic repertoire. It is true that Beethoven drew for the finale of his Eroica Symphony on a theme which he had originally composed for his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, but that theme is not heard in the overture to that ballet which we were given here.

 What we did have were three thoroughly well-prepared and exceptionally well-played performances of the chosen works. The overture, not one of Beethoven’s greatest essays in the medium, came across with plenty of fire and gusto and although the violins were bunched together on the left-hand side of the stage in the modern manner the differentiation between first and second violins, an essential element in Beethovenian orchestral practice, came over with perfect clarity. Although these were certainly not period performances in the sense that we understand the term today, they were informed by elements of period practice and ideas of the appropriate tempo which brought the music to life; and although the number of strings were more than those which might have been expected in the classical era, the wind and brass came through with perfect clarity while not obscuring the excitable figurations in the strings.

 Similar observations could be made about the performance of the Schumann concerto which followed, with the piano perfectly balanced with the orchestra and the often picaresque wind solos coming through with ideal clarity even when Schumann’s treatment of the strings relegates them so largely to a subordinate accompaniment. Unfortunately, however the performance persistently refused to take wing, the classical ideal taking precedence over Schumann’s romanticism to an extent that seemed to preclude any great degree of flexibility over and above that indicated in the score. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the performance technically, but both Stephen Hough and Andris Nelsons seemed to be content with this perfection to the exclusion of any of the rough edges that would have brought Schumann more clearly into focus. The result was rather like looking at a ceramic representation of the music which was full of Biedermeier charm but left the spectator at a remove from the essence of the representation.

 After the interval, at the opening of the Eroica Symphony, one had initially the same sense of technical perfection triumphant over the sheer bravado of Beethoven’s score; but then, just after the start of the exposition repeat, the music suddenly seemed to take fire and for once the repeated section was given a new dimension which persisted throughout the remainder of the performance. I was delighted, by the way, that Nelsons adopted the nineteenth-century amendment of Beethoven’s trumpet line in the coda of the first movement; purists nowadays would insist on the observation of Beethoven’s original (trumpets in his day would not have been capable of completing the main theme with an ascent to the top note) but the alteration – which goes back a long way – has a sense of theatrical excitement which transcends any such considerations, and I have no doubt that Beethoven would have adopted the revision if it had been practical in his day. I am pleased to notice this adaptation of the score once again gaining wider acceptance; Barenboim made the same amendment in his Beethoven cycle at the Proms a couple of years ago. Nelsons also made a real dramatic experience out of the funeral march second movement, and the scherzo bubbled away with glee and positively roistering horns in the trio. The finale too moved purposefully along, but at the moment which the romantic tradition identified the entry of the hero into heaven Nelsons really crammed on the brakes at Beethoven’s marking of Poco andante to produce an almost Klemperian conclusion. Nowadays, I would suggest, we would expect a greater emphasis on the indication poco to keep the music moving forward more purposefully. Still, that is clearly the way Nelsons feels the music, and there was still plenty of excitement in the Presto conclusion. The audience clearly felt this to be the case, and the performance elicited cheers that had been rather less evident in the earlier part of the concert. It was just a pity that there were not more of them; the hall, despite a clearly popular programme, did not seem to be more than three-quarters full.

Paul Corfield Godfrey