Saturday, May 27, 2023

Kölner Philharmonie, Cologne

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

While the Berlin Philharmoniker journeyed the love and climax of Messiaen’s Turangalîla,, Cologne’s West German Radio Symphony, several hours southwest, tackled a charged voyage centring on two key Romantic works sixty years apart – Schumann’s ‘Clara’ Piano Concerto (1845) and Elgar’s A-flat First Symphony (1908). Schumann’s pages, the particular nature of his structuring, repetitions, rhythmic syntax and piano writing, make the Concerto something of a minefield. Misjudge the style, under/over dramatise, over/under lyricise, play too cautiously, and it can all but fall apart. More than occasionally, even in the best hands, it’s left me disquietened, bored even. Francesco Piemontesi breathed a spring wind into its dynamic, scoring a triumph with the first movement, Beethoven’s spirit and gait more than Hummel, Chopin, the many virtuoso pianist-composers of the 1820s/30s, firing its power and grandeur. A glowingly shaped unforced cadenza, contextually organic. Placed and toned, Germanically throated, the Intermezzo proved an intimately balanced dialogue, sentiment before sentimentality. Only perhaps in the Finale’s running passages did a certain hot-headedness take over, the allegro more molto than vivace, the fingerwork a shade shorn of phrasing however thrilling the glitter and octaves. No matter. Like the touching-up of the score at the end (an anima moment), the spontaneity and leidenschaft, going with the tide on the night, counted for more. With Lionel Bringuier in supportively-minded form (contrasting Bělohlávek on Piemontesi’s Naïve CD, a rather more reticent partner), and a seasoned, class orchestra shy of neither detail (some striking woodwind contributions) nor taking an upfront stance, this was a full-blooded affair, from thoroughbred steeplechase to paddock sojourn to St Leger sprint. Schubert’s candled G-flat Impromptu made for a diaphanously spun encore, all humming and voicing, aria and texture.

The Elgar was variable. At its strongest in the slower paragraphs, with a deeply felt Adagio. Yet at the start (crotchet 63) uneasily self-conscious, Bringuier and his on-camera players seemingly near embarrassed by the noblimente ‘Englishness’ of the melody and first tutti, missing the composer’s rubato and rhythmic framing in his quicker 1930 Kingsway Hall recording. The brilliance and vigour of the second movement ran its course, though with the viola subject at fig 59 and its fuoco brass elaborations leaning a little too closely for my taste towards picture-palace bombast, John Williams disproportionately present. At around fifty-two minutes (Elgar took forty-six, Boult forty-five at the 1976 Proms) Bringuier more or less acknowledged the current norm. But while he prompted me to re-evaluate and go back to the score he didn’t displace Barbirolli, Colin Davis or ‘Tod’ Handley in my affections. Nor, among recent German performances, Andrew Manze’s committed Neubrandenburg account with the NDR Radiophilharmonie in June 2022 – when David Nice’s words about “clouds of glory … that sense of the numinous at the heart of the work” came to mind.