Bravura and Delicacy in Grosvenor’s Performance of Beethoven

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart. Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thomas Søndergård (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 5.2.2015 (PCG)

Haydn – Symphony No 28 in A (1765)
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No 1 in C, Op.15 (1795, revised 1801)
Mozart – Symphony No 41 in C, K551 (1788) ‘Jupiter’


What can a modern symphony orchestra like the BBC NoW do with the repertoire of the early classical period during the late eighteenth century? Unless such bodies are prepared to abandon these works wholly to the ‘period instrument’ fraternity (as appears to have substantially happened with the music from the earlier part of the century) and thereby also abandon a well-established tradition, they slim down their forces and play with minimal vibrato, without sacrificing the emotional warmth that is their raison d’être. This was what they did in the Haydn Symphony No 28, and very effective it was too, although it would have been even better if the violins had been split left and right across the stage as composers of the period would clearly have expected. This would, for example, have made the antiphonal interchange between the two solo violins in the trio of the minuet even more effective than it was here. Nevertheless Søndergård did not stint on the humour of this early and little-known Haydn symphony.

Similarly in the Beethoven First Piano Concerto the use of a modern concert grand (instead of the ‘fortepiano’ which the authenticists would favour) also featured the addition of an extra desk of strings to each section. Indeed this was ‘big band’ Beethoven, and Benjamin Grosvenor did not make the mistake of trying to tone down the romantic implications in the piano writing. Instead he offered playing of bravura as well as delicacy in a concerto which the young Beethoven wrote as a showpiece for his own dexterity; he riveted the attention of this listener throughout. The reprise of the main theme in the slow movement had a tenderness and wistfulness that would have been hard to achieve on a ‘period’ instrument, and the interchange between the soloist and Robert Plane’s clarinet had the intimacy and rapport of the best traditions of chamber music. This same sense of interplay was in evidence too during the boisterous finale. It was a pity that the hall, despite the cachet of the soloist’s name, was less than half full.

I have complained before on this site about the deplorable habit of soloists failing to identify the encores they give us, and Grosvenor unfortunately joined the band of miscreants by leaving most of the audience totally mystified by Mompou’s The fountain and the clock. The same uncertainty also afflicted the BBC staff to whom members of the public also appealed; all I could say that the main theme of the piece bore a decided resemblance to one of the themes from Finzi’s Intimations of Immortality. Please don’t leave us in the dark like this! Grosvenor played it with poise, but when he had finished all I could hear around me were puzzled listeners trying to identify what they had just heard; speculations ranged from Sibelius to Moeran, and from Ravel to John Ireland.

In the second part of the programme Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony could have done with an even bigger body of strings, especially in the slow movement – there were occasions when the wind harmonies threatened to overpower the delicate violin melodies – and this would not have obscured woodwind solos if the violins had been split antiphonically. We know of Mozart’s delight when he encountered an orchestra with a larger number of players; and it is surely not too fanciful to think that in this symphony (written presumably for his own pleasure, since it was never performed in his lifetime) he might have had some such body in mind.

Paul Godfrey

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