Beethoven of the very top rank from Sunwook Kim and Laurence Equilbey’s Insula Orchestra

FranceFrance Beethoven: Sunwook Kim (piano), Insula Orchestra / Laurence Equilbey (conductor). La Seine Musicale, Paris, France, 29.9.2021 (CC)

Laurence Equilbey conducts Sunwook Kim (piano) and the Insula orchestra © Julien Benhamou

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37 (1802); Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60 (1807)

This opening concert of Insula Orchestra’s 2021/22 season celebrated Beethoven’s orchestral and concerto output, setting the season off as it means to go on: in May 2022, again under Laurence Equilbey, they present Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, staged at BOZAR, Brussels (8 May) and touring to London’s Barbican Centre (11 May, semi-staged) and the orchestra’s home La Seine Musicale, Paris (16, 18 May). Fidelio will be directed by David Bobée, who previously directed Gounod’s La Nonne sanglante for Insula in 2018; the role of Leonore will be taken by Irish soprano Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, while names familiar from Insula’s Der Freischütz return, with Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Florestan and Christian Immler as Rocco.

Back to the Seine, though, for a scintillating performance of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with Sunwook Kim. Kim was replacing Nicholas Angelich, with whom the orchestra has already recorded Beethoven Concertos Nos. 4 and 5; the idea was to release this performance, but indisposition forced a postponement of plans. But the gain was Kim, winner of the 2006 Leeds International Piano Competition and who is known for his Beethoven. His Accentus DVD of the last three Beethoven Sonatas features beautiful and mature playing. (Filmed in the trendily graffitied Kunstkraftwerk, Leipzig, this DVD includes one of the finest performances of Op.110 available.) Kim’s Beethoven Third Piano Concerto was fully up to the expectations laid by that DVD: prepared by a gripping orchestral exposition from Equilbey and her orchestra, fast-moving (a clear two-to-a-bar), beautifully balanced and full of tension, Kim’s reading was fresh and energetic. He took pains to play the music exactly as notated – no ‘pianistic’ splitting of arpeggiations between hands – and gave us a cadenza to remember, beautifully considered yet virtuosic. Kim played on the same 1892 Pleyel concert grand Insula used for the concerto and Triple Concerto recordings. It has a beautiful, sweet treble and a light bass (which seemed not in the slightest lacking here, however).

The central Largo, taken properly slowly (a semiquaver pulse) featured the most exquisitely grazioso orchestral response to Kim’s beautifully weighted opening solo. It was here in the slow movement particularly that one became aware of the clear advantages of a period approach – the bassoon solo sang sweetly, in harmony with the piano’s arpeggiations, not at war with them. All woodwind solos projected easily. The whole movement created a rapt tapestry of sound that slipped, via the horns’ last slow arpeggiation, into a pool of silence. So often we hear this performed attacca into the finale, but an inter-movement gap was necessary for the horns to change crooks. This was an immaculate finale, charged with momentum and yet with space a fine coda, every note perfectly judged and yet with just the right amount of excitement. A phenomenal performance. It is worthwhile restating Equilbey’s excels as concerto partner: she illuminates every nook and cranny of the score without ever drawing attention to the fact, and her ability to bring orchestra in line with soloist is faultless, no doubt related to her operatic experience. One encore: a rapt performance of Brahms’s Op.118/2.

Laurence Equilbey © Jana Jocif

The Fourth Symphony occupies an interesting place in Beethoven’s symphonic canon. It gets more outings than the Second, but still seems to get out less than the odd numbered symphonies. Yet it remains a towering masterpiece, as Equilbey demonstrated beyond any doubt. With a first movement Adagio that was expansive yet full of tension (how those woodwind contributions spoke of mysteries unsolved), and a first movement proper full of perfectly co-ordinated explosive accents (and which included exposition repeat), this was large-scale Beethoven. The second movement was full of loving detail, while special mention must go to Principal Clarinet Vincenzo Casale and the second horn (for a beautifully rendered upwards arpeggiation), Gilbert Cami-Farras. This of all the movements in the symphony showed just how thoroughly Equilbey has rethought the score from scratch: fresh, full of illuminations wherever one looked. The Scherzo was chock full of life, vibrant and immaculately executed. It is clear that discipline is at the heart of Insula’s performances, but it is also just the starting point. The finale was just as remarkable: Equilbey pushed Beethoven’s request for ‘Allegro ma non troppo’ to its limits, resulting in the sense of a furioso rustic dance. The music threatens to fizz over, so powerful was this performance.

We received an orchestral encore also, from Die Ruinen von Athen (The Ruins of Athens).

As we find our feet after the darkest days of COVID, concerts such as this, slightly shorter than the norm but with no interval, have become increasingly common, and they often feel ‘just right’ in length. Such was the case here, except the performances were far more than just right: music making of the very top rank, in fact.

Colin Clarke

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