United Kingdom Beethoven, Bruckner: Valery Afanassiev (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 28.9.2016. (GD)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 1
Bruckner: Symphony No 4
Initially I thought Jurowski had chosen an unusually measured tempo for the orchestral opening of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto (actually his second piano concerto) although it never dragged with buoyant rhythms and sharp brass and woodwinds. But with Afanassiev’s first entry it was clear that Jurowski was working to accommodate the pianist. This slower than usual tempo took us back to the days of great pianists like Backhaus, Erdmann and Kempff. But as the movement unfolded there was the sense of a wonderful dialogue between pianist and conductor. Afanassiev’s clarity of tone and lucidity of phrasing (with a minimum of pedalling) 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. Afanassiev chose Beethoven’s second and most complex of his three cadenzas, 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 in its formidable epic quality. Afanassiev’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 whole 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 with a rhythmic bite and integrity of outline – which was so refreshing! Afanassiev gave it an irresistible sense of inner coherence and sonata logic, whilst always contouring the many contrasts between rhythmic vigour and lyrical refrain to perfection.
Jurowski’s conducting was admirable throughout, relishing the multi-thematic dialogue with Afanassiev. Despite deploying quite a large string section with four double basses he managed (with of course with antiphonal strings) a translucent clarity throughout. The woodwind/horn 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. Modern timpani were deployed with hard sticks, giving the drums a sharp edge. As the programme notes informed us, Afanassiev has recently been deploying his conductor skills. He ‘endeavours to approach something of the sound quality and polyphony of his favourite conductors which include Furtwängler, Toscanini, Klemperer, Mengelberg and Walter’. I would have loved to have heard him playing the Beethoven concerto with Klemperer whose bringing out of ‘inner-voices’ and sense of architecture and monumentality of structure would have suited Afanassiev to perfection. Afanassiev played on a Bösendorfer piano which has a more mellow and translucent tone than the more frequently used Steinway. Annie Fischer, Backhaus, Erdmann and Kempff all preferred the Bösendorfer sound. Apart from being a musician Afanassiev is something of a polymath with over thirty novels and numerous poetry collections published, as well as a play on themes of Franz Kafka. In this sense Afanassiev reminds me of the kind of composer/philosopher polymath we meet in Thomas Mann’s great musical/philosophical novel Doctor Faustus.
As an encore Afanassiev played a moving rendition of Mozart’s sublime Fantasy in D minor K397, which, he told us, was dedicated to his great teacher in Moscow Emil Gilels. Actually it was not just an ‘encore’, it was more of a personal homage to his great teacher and the great era of pianists he represented. The opening had an exquisite depth of tone, very seldom heard today, and the closing transition to a major key and a gentle Allegretto was magical.
Jurowski took something of a risk in programming Bruckner’s first (1874) version of his Fourth Symphony. The revised version of 1878/80 is overwhelmingly the version most preferred by conductors, both those who specialise in Bruckner, and those who do not. In both musical and concert projection this is understandable – in terms of the later revised version’s superior structural coherence and economy of musical ideas. But having said that, the composer’s first version is fascinating in slightly perverse ways, and as a tantalising insight into the evolution of his composing methods. You can almost hear the composer struggling with musical ideas in terms of content and form – a kind of Brucknerian compositional workshop. Indeed, Bruckner structured his first versions with no regard for the players or listeners, working, as it were, from the drawing board, proceeding from the basic information of the familiar organ register technique which stands in total opposition to linear counterpoint and also from freely manipulated tonal effects.
All the thematic material in the first version is recognisable in the more familiar revised version except in the third movement scherzo, which here hardly resembles anything alluding to a joke! In fact, the first scherzo, deriving as it does from the interval of a fifth, heard in the long and varying exposition of the first movement, creates a more coherent thematic link than in the revised edition. The scherzo and trio of the revised edition in fact has nothing whatsoever in common with the first version. Whereas the revised scherzo is more recognisable as a hunting movement with bucolic horn rhythms in the German Romantic style, the first version registers its structural contour through chromatic textures which create a contrast between compact blocks and the repeated first horn call. The contrast between this and the fifths, fourths and sixths of the oboe theme in the trio is something of a textbook example of inverted intervals and contrasted texture; and as such more musically compelling than the revised version.
Bruckner’s tonal modulation is more complex in the first version incorporating quite remote tonal clusters in relation to the home key of E flat major. The combination of C minor, D minor and F sharp minor in modulation in the first movement is just one example from which Bruckner develops massively extended repetitive ostinatos. These give way to plaintive bi-tonal refrains in the upper Austrian Ländler mould thus introducing stunning, almost perverse contrasts. The bi-tonal ostinato figures in the long finale give full voice to the grotesque element in Bruckner’s musical make-up …massive tutti organ inflected orchestral climaxes which often derive from the most naïve folk dance rhythms.
Jurowski handled all this with utter conviction, most importantly conveying a sense of movement and contrast throughout the whole work. There were moments of orchestral roughness especially in the brass section but if anything this added to the grotesque aspect of Bruckner’s first version. Overall the LPO, very well-rehearsed, responded excellently to Bruckner’s and Jurowski’s demands. I counted ten double-basses, which certainly provided more heft to Bruckner’s often extreme and repetitive soundscapes. As with the original version of the Third Symphony he gave earlier this year (review) Jurowski is proving himself to be an exceptional Bruckner conductor. I know this is part of a complete Bruckner cycle using the original versions, but it would be nice if Jurowski could fit in a performance of the revised edition of this flawed but magnificent symphony.