Thursday, June 30, 2022

Barbican Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed

This was the first of two LSO concerts rounding off the orchestra’s 2021/22 Barbican season, both with Sir John Eliot and Maria João Pires. The programme here was Beethoven, and there was that familiar imposition of period-style by Gardiner onto one of the great orchestras. Of course, the LSO delivers no-vibrato string-playing, hard-stick timpani and, as required, rasping brass, because that is what these musicians can do, brilliantly.

Yet doubts nag about artificiality and from there to heretical thoughts about period manners sounding a bit, well, mannered, the thing you perceive most strongly. Modern brass and woodwind instruments are not so volatile, and the vibrato-less strings are fine with the exposed sound they produce, but Gardiner’s detail with dynamics and tone often tends to the overwrought and airless. It’s a bit like using impressionist gestures of colour and tone to build up a classical painting. Another Gardiner tendency is to stretch and exaggerate, which he did with consummate control in the introduction to the Leonore Overture No.2, etching in with eerie accuracy the contours of Florestan’s incarceration – the music’s turn into Leonora’s heroic theme was never so welcome or such a relief.

Gardiner was more accommodating in the Piano Concerto No.3, meeting Maria João Pires halfway. Her performance, particularly in the first movement, softened the rhetorical element of a Concerto that, unlike the Fourth, can often sound more inclined to a sequence of statements than a dialogue. But then the great Pires makes her role seem so effortless and natural, a recreative mystery hiding in plain sight, her playing lightly sprung, corners elegantly turned, textures deftly lit. And she has the necessary weight for Beethoven’s signature passages of C-minor grandeur and for a majestically dominant cadenza. Her opening of the Largo was impeccably judged, gathering together wisdom and experience into a sublime meditation, skimming and dipping beneath the surface of the LSO’s superbly refined and discreet playing. What a great artist she is, and how well she flattered and absorbed Gardiner’s more patrician take on the music.

Those who could – that is, not the bassists, cellists and timpanist – stood throughout for Symphony No.4, with Gardiner in grandstanding mode and liberally putting the vim into vivace. Does standing do something to liberate the players? Do they become more responsive and alert to the conductor’s every whim? If you were listening and not watching, would you automatically think that the players must be standing? There were plenty of thrills – the moment of recapitulation in the first movement was a bull’s-eye event on a par with the recap in the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata, one of Beethoven’s great stunts, and here explosively delivered. Perhaps the standing enabled the friction-free ensemble that simmered beneath the Adagio, and there were some sublime woodwind solos. Gardiner took to heart the Scherzo’s Allegro vivace, the LSO turning in some impressively nimble virtuosity, and he dropped the ma non troppo bit of the Finale’s Allegro. I didn’t know bassoonists could play that fast, and at times the dominant propulsive rhythm veered towards Widor’s ‘Toccata’ on steroids. Yes, it was very exciting. Not so illuminating.

Sir Antonio Pappano conducts the LSO in music by Italian composers written across the centuries – Giovanni Gabrieli, Vivaldi, Goffredo Petrassi, Puccini & Victor de Sabata [BBC Radio 3 recording].

Philharmonia Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall – Herbert Blomstedt conducts Bruckner Seven & Maria João Pires plays Mozart K488/Piano Concerto 23.

Berliner Philharmoniker – Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducts Brahms & Mendelssohn with the Monteverdi Choir [live Digital Concert Hall webcast].