An Excellent Beethoven Evening from Marin Alsop and the LPO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Beethoven David Fray (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra/Marin Alsop (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 21.2.2015 (RB)

Overture: Leonore No. 3
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op 37
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op 92

It was good to see the Royal Festival Hall packed for this evening of Beethoven favourites. Marin Alsop is currently an Artist in Residence at the Southbank Centre and she has a close working relationship with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. She has also previously collaborated with the young French pianist, David Fray, who is building a considerable international reputation with his performances of Bach, Mozart and Schubert.

The concert opened with an accomplished and well executed performance of the Leonore No. 3 overture. Alsop controlled the fluctuations in tempo well and showed scrupulous attention to detail throughout. The phrasing was immaculate and there was a clear sense of line and structure. The LPO captured the darkness and solemnity of the opening section while the subsequent shafts of sunlight on woodwind and strings radiated through the dark corners of Florestan’s dungeon. Paul Beniston’s off-stage trumpet superbly signalled the impending rescue while scurrying scales in the back desks of the strings were allowed to build into a triumphant wave of sound with the LPO’s horns ringing heroically through the hall. This was a great opening to the concert.

David Fray then took the stage for the C minor Concerto. Like Gould and Lupu he chooses to sit on a chair rather the more conventional piano stool. He approaches the Baroque and Classical repertoire in a very romantic way, using the full resources of the concert grand and he is an intensely sensitive and lyrical player. While this may work well in the music of Bach or Schubert I feel Beethoven needs a more disciplined approach and I was not entirely convinced by his performance. Alsop and the LPO opened well giving us very clean Classical phrasing and transparent textures. Fray was on top of the score and he clearly has a talent for making the piano sing and for producing gorgeous colours. However, I felt he used too much pedal and I would have liked the passage work to be crisper and cleaner. In the first movement I did not find the overarching narrative structure entirely convincing particularly in the development section which seemed to drift along. I also felt some of the elements of conflict and struggle in the music could have been characterised more effectively. Fray played Beethoven’s own cadenza and he seemed to be more comfortable with this material bringing a well-judged improvisatory freedom to the music and considerable virtuoso firepower to the passagework.

The Largo second movement played more to the soloist’s strengths and I loved the expressive freedom which Fray brought to much of the piano writing. He accompanied the LPO’s woodwind in a nicely understated and unobtrusive way and there were moments of pure poetry. In the rondo finale, Alsop did a wonderful job controlling the dialogue between the soloist and the LPO, keeping the exchanges tight. Fray gave us some crisp and nicely delineated lines and did a good job bringing out the Beethovenian wit and humour. Occasionally, I felt his approach to some of the more lyrical material was a little self-indulgent but the coda was a blistering piece of piano playing which brought the piece to a triumphant conclusion.

The highlight of the concert and one of the best pieces of orchestral playing I have heard in quite a long time was the final work on the programme – the Seventh Symphony – which Alsop conducted without a score. The work was famously described by Wagner as “the apotheosis of the dance”. Everything about this performance including the tempi, the dynamics, balance of sound, the rhythmic impetus and realisation of the dance elements was perfect. The slow introduction had the necessary depth and weight of sound and there were some clean and nicely articulated lines by the LPO. The Vivace section was jaunty and energetic with Alsop and the orchestra really capturing the ebullient high spirits of the work. The Allegretto marking was scrupulously observed in the second movement and Alsop gave us some striking dynamic contrasts (at one point some of the string playing was just about audible). There was some gorgeous expressive playing in the strings and lovely changes in tone colour from the woodwind and brass. The Presto was played with vitality and brilliance with Alsop keeping the exchanges razor sharp while the trio section had the necessary lilt and sway of an Austrian dance; here the LPO’s trumpets gave the music a resplendent flavour. The finale received a high octane performance with Alsop keeping a tight grip on the reins and demanding that her players maintain the momentum. The LPO responded with relish, making this wonderfully vibrant music fresh and invigorating.

As one would expect after such a performance, the audience responded with a rousing cheer and gave the performers a well-deserved standing ovation.

Robert Beattie

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