United Kingdom Brahms: Rudolf Buchbinder (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Jakub Hrůša (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 23.3.2017. (AS)
Brahms, Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat Op.83; Symphony No.4 in E minor Op.98
The previous evening’s concert at the Festival Hall had been cancelled as a result of the nearby terrorist incident that afternoon, but fortunately it was now business as usual.
The Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder is one of the most experienced performers on the concert and recital circuit. Now aged 70, he has been at the forefront of his profession since he started giving high profile concerts as a teenager. He has never been known as a flashy virtuoso, but more as an interpreter who faithfully follows the letter and spirit of the music he plays. If such a description implies dullness and a lack of imagination, this was certainly not the case in his performance of the Brahms concerto. There was at once evident in his playing a sense of quiet but magisterial control, total authority and a lovely depth of tone to match his aristocratic style. Those seeking pianistic thrills and excitement will have been disappointed. What we experienced instead was a classical but naturally expressive reading of the concerto that well matched the nature of the music. Of particular note was the firm rhythmic strength of the second movement Allegro appassionato, beautifully balanced and not over-driven as it can sometimes be, a poetic, imaginatively reflective and tonally beautiful delivery of the Andante, with a fine cello solo played by Karen Stephenson, the newly promoted section leader, it would seem, and a finale that sparkled attractively, with some nicely judged variations of tempo, and a basic pulse that was never too insistent. Throughout the work, Jakub Hrůša gave Buchbinder sympathetic support, and his own communicative moulding of orchestral phrases suggested that good things were to come in his performance of the Fourth Symphony.
That indeed proved to be the case. His shaping of the Symphony’s first movement seemed ideal to this listener, with just the right basic tempo fluctuations that allowed the music to flow expressively. Perhaps a degree of sheer architectural strength was missing in Hrůša’s approach, a very slight lack of firm Brahmsian backbone, but in its own terms this was a satisfying reading, with a very well judged accelerando at the movement’s end. The conductor’s pacing of the second movement seemed just right, with its every contrastingly expressive twist and turn brought out cleanly and strongly. Brahms marks the third movement Allegro giocoso, and Hrůša duly reflected this instruction of “playfulness” in the music by projecting it at quite a fast pace, including the lyrical middle section. His was a legitimate approach, I am sure, but does this music benefit from a slightly more bluff, slightly clumsier expression of good humour at a more lumbering tempo, as befits the composer’s somewhat rough nature? I think many conductors of the past have thought so.
Sir Adrian Boult said that the last movement of this symphony was the most difficult of all Brahms’s symphonic movements to bring off in performance, and one can see why this passacaglia with 30 variations imposes such demands on a conductor’s ability to provide a unique identity for each section yet weld the sections into a coherent, satisfying entity. This feat was achieved triumphantly by Hrůša.
If only the playing had been a little more distinguished. The strings and woodwind were of reasonable standard, but too often the brass produced a coarse, unsubtly blended quality of sound. Once again, there were a number of extras or deputies in each orchestral section. I do hope this orchestra soon achieves a more settled membership.