S&H Concert Review

Brahms: Piano Concerto No 2 & Symphony No 1, Philharmonia Orchestra, Maurizio Pollini (pf), Christoph von Dohnányi, RFH, November 2000 (MB)

Some concerts often prove elusive to write about. This was one of them.

On paper, Maurizio Pollini, making a rare UK appearance in a concerto, should have been the star of this programme, particularly since he was playing a concerto with which he has long been closely associated (his first recording of the work with Karl Böhm being a formidable achievement). In the event, his performance of Brahms' titanic second left me largely unmoved. True, the pianism was resplendent and downright exciting at times (octaves were flung off with unrivalled abandon), and the tone he produced was outsized but golden. Pollini is a pianist who lives very near the edge of perfectionism and possibly because of this what this performance lacked was a sense of struggle. There is an inevitability about a Pollini performance which can be very disconcerting - rather like watching a gladiator who you know will always survive (or cheat) death.

Pollini's mastery of the keyboard is so complete one wonders exactly why he can't fill this concerto with the melancholic mellowness, the summer-like darkness it needs in truly great performances of it. There was sublime understatement in the third movement's cello-piano exchange, but coming so soon after the second movement's tussles between orchestra and pianist it didn't seem quite sublime enough. At times, during both the first and second movements, he had to lift himself from his stool to achieve the correct dynamic range, at others he was almost inaudible. It was a perplexing performance, but not a great one.

The performance of the Brahms' First Symphony, however, was not just memorable - it was truly great. I knew from Dohnányi's handling of opening, with its thunderous timpani, that this would be so. There was no accelerando, viz Toscanini, just the sublime opening expansively played as Brahms intended it to be. Conductor and orchestra found an expressiveness that had been lacking in the concerto, and an electricity that it is so rare to hear in any performance of a Brahms symphony now-a-days, let alone one as ubiquitous in the concert hall as the First. If this performance reminded me of any recording of the work it would be Guido Cantelli's studio recording with the same orchestra. This was a fiery, passionate, lyrical performance. It lacked nothing.

The Philharmonia played magnificently - with flute, violin and horn solos all world-class and, for once, charismatic. Dohnányi, conducting with drama and panache (despite a broken collarbone) was triumphant.


Marc Bridle

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