United Kingdom Beethoven and Mahler: Piotr Anderszewski (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Jakub Hrůša (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 15.2.2018. (MB)
Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.1 in C major, op.15
Mahler – Symphony no.5
A frustrating yet far from uninteresting concert, this, the interest lying mostly in moments, corners, even in performative difference. The Festival Hall audience erupted at the end of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, but then London and indeed most other audiences do at the end of any Mahler performance, irrespective of what has actually been heard. Jakub Hrůša is a fine conductor, yet proved uneven here in Mahler. The Fifth Symphony is a very difficult work indeed to bring off; I have heard many conductors come quite unstuck here, not least, in their very different ways, Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim. Probably the best performance I have heard was with the same orchestra as this evening, the Philharmonia, under Daniele Gatti. Comparisons are odious, no doubt, yet Hrůša’s account here seemed very much a work-in-progress: fascinating moments, interspersed with merely loud, fast, even vulgar passages, whose structural role seemed at best unclear.
That said, the first movement opened promisingly, with great sadness to the phrasing in particular, although even here the balances were often brass-heavy. The Philharmonia’s string sound was cultivated to a degree, although something a little closer to the sound Rafael Kubelík drew from orchestras – he came to mind not least on account of the Beethoven concerto, on which more below – would not have gone amiss. As I was drawn in, though, there was something more sepulchral, more sinister to be heard and to be felt, almost as if through the harmonic cracks. Hrůša’s Bernstein-like hysteria I liked less, partly because it did not seem to have been born of a Bernstein-like conception of the work; it sounded more arbitrary than anything else. Ultimately, though, this, like much of the symphony, came across as something of a patchwork, not necessarily more than the sum of its parts. There was a keen sense of dualism(s) to the second movement; what I missed here was what might mediate between them. Or was I trying to find something that was not there? That I asked the question spoke of a reading to take seriously. And if the music teetered sometimes on the brink of collapse, there is certainly a case to be made for such an approach.
The scherzo and thus the second part of the symphony proved nicely enigmatic, if just a little too episodic. It opened in intriguingly materialist fashion, without ever sounding too much like Strauss, at least until the pizzicato marionettes, who surely spoke of something beyond. The impotence of the Meistersinger-ish counterpoint really told too. The close, quite rightly, told us everything and nothing.
It was in the third part that doubts really set in – again, despite some thought-provoking moments. Hrůša made a bit of a meal of the Adagietto, not so much in terms of tempo as in succumbing a little too much to the temptation to pull it around. The light shone on its darker corners was, however, well directed. The final movement ideally needed a stronger sense of a whole: easier said than done, I know, yet still necessary. That its mood fell somewhere between gentle humour and mockery was certainly to be applauded, as was the impression of an object of enigmatic fascination.
Hrůša seemed on surer ground with Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, and the Philharmonia – somewhat scaled back, yet not unduly – proved quite outstanding here. The problem lay more with Piotr Anderszewski, who seemed unsure quite what he thought of the work. He was quite capable of yielding on occasion, sometimes magically so; by the same token, there was something bracingly modernistic to gleaming, almost Bauhaus-like passages. Others, however, sounded merely brutal. Perhaps it was indicative of a lack of a meeting of minds that Anderszewski seemed at his keenest and most coherent in the first movement cadenza. Hrůša and the Philharmonia might almost have been Kubelík and his Bavarian Radio orchestra, whether in tone or in melodic and harmonic understanding. I should have loved to hear them play Beethoven with another pianist, or with Anderszewski in a different mood – or, indeed, in one of the symphonies.