Biss Plays Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with Lucity and Clarity

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Brahms: Jonathan Biss (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra/ Jakub Hrůša (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, 17.3.2016 (GD)

Mendelssohn: Overture – Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage 

Beethoven:  Piano Concerto No. 1 in c, Op. 15

Brahms:  Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68

There was a real sense of dialogue between soloist and conductor in Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto (actually his second piano concerto). The first movement was inflected with a rare understanding/delivery of the movement Allegro con brio, certainly not always the case here! Biss is one of the most compelling pianists today, as his continuing recordings of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas attest. His playing tonight had a wonderful lucidity and clarity, every note audible, despite the punishing acoustic of the Festival Hall. This clarity and lucidity, with plenty of ‘bounce’ reminded us that Beethoven was still much influenced by Mozart. All this certainly came off in the improvisatory development with its profusion of tonal modulations and contrasts, also the thematic juxtapositions between soloist and orchestra. Biss chose Beethoven’s longest and most complex cadenza, thought to date from around 1808 – 09. It certainly has the tone and contour of a more mature Beethoven. I don’t think I have heard it played with such clarity and insight encompassing every detail and its formidable epic quality.  Biss’s delivery of the constellation of themes and contrasting modulations, never sounded like virtuosity for its own sake, a set piece in which the pianist can ‘show-off’, it always corresponded to the thematic structure of the movement. The Largo, with its beautiful woodwind colouring (again the influence of Mozart), and subtle ornamentation for soloist, was all compellingly realised – as was the brilliant concluding Rondo, marked Allegro Scherzando, played at a real allegro – which was so refreshing! Biss gave it an irresistible sparkle, whilst always contouring the many contrasts between rhythmic vigour and lyrical refrain to perfection.

Hrůša’s conducting was admirable throughout, relishing the dialogue with Biss. Despite deploying a quite large string section with four double basses he managed a translucent clarity throughout. The woodwind interjections had an almost bucolic buoyancy, an example of Beethovenian humour. The coda’s ‘knock-about’ rhythms – to use feline metaphors – were more in the mould of tiger-cub rough play than kittenish frolics. As far as I could tell, the only concession to ‘period’ style was in  the use of what looked like ‘period’ timpani with hand tuning and hard stick which sounded most effective. I do wish Hrůša had deployed antiphonal violins. But this is more of a quibble in the light of such concerto excellence. Unusually the Festival Hall audience only allowed a couple of curtain calls before dissembling for the interval, though I am sure Biss had an encore ready to play. I have known them to insist on an encore after a half a dozen curtain calls for far less gifted soloists. It all goes to show that audiences (even Festival Hall audiences) are unpredictable creatures!

Hrůša’s rendition of Brahms’s First Symphony was not without its merits. He obtained a welcomed mediation between instrumental balance and lucidity of tone. The opening Un poco sostenuto sounded very ‘sustained’ with not a note of rigidity. The aforementioned clarity certainly came off in the Allegro, which can sometimes sound turgid and dull. The difficult C minor cross-rhythms in the strings were absolutely clear in their execution despite Hrůša’s decision to deploy non antiphonal violins, but they lacked an essential dramatic thrust.  In fact, I have only heard this cross-rhythm passage played in its full dramatic intensity from Arturo Toscanini in the early 50s. This music needs more than mere clarity of execution. There was here, and throughout the symphony, a certain lack of dramatic charge. Also there was something missing in the superb contrasts of tone, as in the first section of the development where the tone darkens from C flat to E flat minor. In this particular passage a plaintive oboe figure leads to a dialogue in the woodwind and mysterious, magisterial cloud-like chords on muted pp trumpets, subtended by a pp, but  ominous timpani figure. In this performance all this was ‘there’ but it all sounded rather bland with little sense of being an integral part of a great unfolding symphonic drama. This sequence acts as the preparation for the recapitulation of the first allegro subject, now furiously ablaze in tutti C minor, based on a relentless four-figure rhythm secured in the bass and drums. Hrůša totally failed to realize the sustained intensity of the passage. However in the coda, for Tovey a ‘song of sorrow’ Hrůša was most careful in matters of dynamics, giving the lamenting rhythmic figure in drums and basses, from the movements introduction, a clarity not always heard.

The Andante sostenuto came off quite well in terms of tone and phrasing, but it wasn’t sufficiently ‘sustained’. Furthermore, I would have welcomed more of a sense of movement and flow. In the coda the florid passages for solo violin were well delivered, never sounding sentimental as is often the case. And again Hrůša gradated the throbbing pp figure in basses and timpani to perfection. The Allegretto grazioso went quite well, if sounding somewhat bland at times. And the dark drama of the C minor introduction to the finale sounded suitably brooding with the chorale theme on woodwind and lower brass well integrated. The wonderful transition to the light of C major, with the glorious horn melody was well articulated, with Hrůša emphasising the horns, which don’t really need emphasising at this point.

The finale went well, with every orchestral detail audible. And the great presto coda, with its triumphant peroration of themes and the glorious tutti statement of the choral theme – ‘the most solemn moment in the whole symphony’ for Tovey – benefited by being played in tempo and not ponderously drawn out as it often is. Although there was plenty of welcome clarity of detail in Hrůša’s reading I missed that ultimate sense of drama, struggle, and final jubilation, heard in the very greatest performances. Despite the fact that I was sitting in an ideal position in the stalls, I didn’t always hear the sonorous weight of the orchestra, especially in the coda. This applied especially to the string section which lacked a certain warmth and glow. But this may have been partly due to the generally cavernous acoustic of the Festival Hall. I must point out one odd detail in the coda. After the great chorale the descending tutti figure, repeated 3 times, and each time ending with a syncopated timpani forte stroke was curiously toned down to a kind of limp mezzo-forte, with no timpani stroke. As far as I can discern, it doesn’t appear in any score editions, and for me at least, it seriously reduced the full triumphant power of this exultant coda. If anyone can provide me with some reasoned explanation here I would be most thankful. Otherwise I can only treat it as a most arbitrary departure from the score, the equivalent of toning down the central climax in the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony!

The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s impressionistic, quasi seascape, depiction of a Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage inspired by a pair of short poems by Goethe, and also used by Beethoven in a choral setting. Hrůša came over as a most sympathetic Mendelssohn interpreter. The wonderful sotto voce opening as a musical allegory of a calm sea, interspersed with cloudier tones, was the most poetic and lucid I have heard … Hrůša eliciting an almost ‘chamber’ tone especially in the strings. The main Allegro was given a buoyancy and sharp elegance with well-balanced woodwind. The allegro maestoso coda with timpani thwacks and brass fanfares denoting the sight of land and arrival never sounded lumpy or ‘pompous’ (Tovey’s term). Everything was finely balanced and eloquently phrased. I would certainly like to hear Hrůša in more Mendelssohn, maybe the earlier underplayed symphony (No.1 in C minor), with its Sturm und Drang dark, dramatic tone.

Geoff Diggines