Sheer Magic: Aimard and Salonen deliver a Beethoven Concerto fit for an Emperor

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Strauss, Beethoven: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 22.2.2017. (PCG)

BeethovenNamensfeier Overture, Op.115; Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op.73 ‘Emperor’

StraussAlso Sprach Zarathustra, Op.30

When Friedrich Nietzsche wrote Also Sprach Zarathustra, he deliberately set out to construct a framework for the future evolutionary development of mankind, hailing the coming of the Übermensch as the figure who could replace the outmoded idea of an omnipotent Deity. The ideas he generated spawned a whole host of similar works, beginning with George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman and Back to Methuselah and culminating in a whole raft of science fiction novels and films. Despite its turgid pseudo-Wagnerian prose (rendered in the standard English translation into a poor imitation of the King James Bible) Zarathustra also had a fairly immediate impact on contemporary composers, with both Delius and Mahler settings passages of Nietzsche’s poetry respectively in their Mass of Life and Third Symphony. At the time of its first performance, Strauss’s shorter symphonic poem on the same subject was regarded without an enormous amount of favour (I recall a comment that it failed in its attempt to mix philosophy with music, although I cannot remember who said it); but all that changed with the use of the opening sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001 which immediately established the music as a pop classic. It also indissolubly linked the riveting opening bars with the idea of space exploration, although Arthur C Clarke’s script for the film was even more closely linked with the prospects of future human evolution that the simple mechanics of extra-terrestrial travel – a theme the author had already explored in even greater depth in his earlier novel Childhood’s End. If the links to space travel can be set on one side (admittedly a difficult feat to manage) Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra makes for a real process of discovery in those evolutionary terms, and it has deservedly become the most popular of all his symphonic poems.

Not that this makes it any easier to bring off in performance. Even leaving on one side the many technical difficulties that Strauss presents for the players (stratospheric leaps for the trumpet, high shimmerings on multiplied divided violins, tuning of high woodwind chords), there are also problems in holding the disparate sections of the score together. The religious sentimentality of the section immediately following the spectacular opening sequence must be observed with a cynical eye; the energetic fugue that depicts the advance of science must be restrained from becoming violent as it erupts into ever more feverish triumphs; the solo violin that opens the dance movement must avoid the danger of sounding like Viennese schmaltz; the midnight bell that interrupts the music at its climax must reflect the sense of grief and uncertainty that the poem describes at that point (this is a text of which both Mahler and Delius make much); and the closing bars, with their yearning high wind chords suspended over an earthbound bass C, must convey the sense of an ongoing quest rather than simple harmonic uncertainty. In this performance Esa-Pekka Salonen was simply magnificent in the manner in which he bound these disparate elements together, with Alistair Mackie triumphantly surmounting the perilous leap to a top C at the opening of the Dance Song and even the enormous and spectacular tubular bell towards the end, managing to make the listener overlook the fact that it was pitched an octave higher than notated in the score. The informative programme note by Wendy Thomson quoted Strauss as writing to his wife after the premiere stating that “The climaxes are immense and faultlessly scored”; he may have been smug and self-satisfied, but he was undeniably right.

Beethoven was decidedly less fulsome about his Namensfeier, writing to the Royal Philharmonic Society in London when sending them three overtures in 1816: “I by no means count them among my best works.” This judgement too seems to me to be more or less appropriate; the thematic material lacks distinction, and the occasional brusque chords which interrupt the progress of the music seem rather unmotivated (this was a period when Beethoven was producing a number of occasional scores for specific celebratory occasions). Nonetheless, Salonen clearly set out to make as much as he could of the piece, and the result was eminently satisfactory even if no forgotten masterpiece was revealed.

But the performance of the so-called Emperor Concerto with Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist was really something else again, and that something was very special indeed. Time and again the soloist and orchestra revealed subtle elements in Beethoven’s writing which can so easily sound hackneyed after so many performances over the years. There was plenty of power when required, and even the occasional moments when details of woodwind figuration were lost in the essentially ‘big-band Beethoven’ balance hardly impinged on the impact of a rendition of the score that was nigh on perfection. The delicate interplay between Aimard and Salonen made sheer magic of the slow Adagio, and even the extended opening movement never threatened to outstay its welcome when the variety of textures and thematic elements was as clearly delineated as here. The finale, too, sparkled just as it should, and there was plenty of sly wit to be found as well.

We have been very fortunate indeed this season with the St David’s Hall series of ‘International Concerts’ – and the event under consideration here was probably the absolute highlight of the year thus far. I was also pleased to note that the attendance in the hall was very substantial, and the enthusiastic response of the audience was totally merited.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

2 thoughts on “Sheer Magic: Aimard and Salonen deliver a Beethoven Concerto fit for an Emperor”

  1. Thank you Paul for your superb review. I lack the knowledge to discuss the technical aspects and am somewhat cloth-eared. However, I have to say the ‘Emperor’ was truly outstanding and ranks as perhaps the most enjoyable performance I have attended. We, the audience, were visibly thrilled.


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