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S & H Concert Review

Brahms, Beethoven Hélène Grimaud (piano); Philharmonia Orchestra/Hugh Wolff. RFH, Thursday, June 10th, 2004 (CC)

The indisposition of the marvellous (but still to this day under-rated) Wolfgang Sawallisch meant that his soloist came out in sympathy. So not only one loss, but exit stage left also Maurizio Pollini, whose Brahms First would have been at the very least fascinating. Enter two artists of the younger generations, the photogenic wolf-lover Hélène Grimaud and (mainly) Teldec artist Hugh Wolff. A real chance for youth to capitalise on indisposition.

What a shame it was an opportunity so comprehensively missed. The opening of the Brahms First Piano Concerto did not bode well – bad ensemble was the initial impression. There was a decided unwillingness on the conductor’s part to subdivide the beat, no matter what was symptomatic of a generally unyielding attitude.

Immediately Grimaud entered, questions arose as to what make of piano she was playing on. It sounded less bright than a Steinway (actually it was!) and certainly her tone lacked depth – unattractively thin chorale-like chords were contrasted massively with the Philharmonia strings’ warmth. Interesting that Grimaud seems to do all the right things for depth of tone – the full weight of the arms etc., yet her variety of sound is so lacking. Only in the cadenza did Grimaud’s sensitivity really take off, but this was not contextualised by tougher sinew elsewhere.

Grimaud is one of the few artists I have heard make a Steinway ping like a cheap Yamaha. This is disastrous if a legato line is desired (as in the Adagio) and this ugliness was only emphasised by the Philharmonia’s glow. Grimaud’s impressive trills could not and did not compensate for interpretative misdemeanours, including a prevailing blandness. During this slow movement, I also became aware of some heavy breathing and groaning coming from the stage (although difficult to locate its directionality at first). Perhaps this is the link between Grimaud and Pollini – they both make strange grunts when they play …

It was difficult to see where the ‘non troppo’ part of the finale’s tempo indication came in. Speed rather than rhythmic propulsion was the order of the day, leading to a clean-cut cadenza, well-behaved in the manner of so many shallow young artists. The lack of magic leading into the re-entry of the orchestra was by now merely symptomatic of a reading that did Brahms no favours.

Before the onset of the performance it was difficult not to speculate about Grimaud/Wolff versus a what-might-have-been Pollini/Sawallisch. It rapidly became obvious this was a complete waste of time. Grimaud and Wolff may have the impetuosity of youth on their side, but this cannot compensate for the vast experience of the cancelled artists.

Wolff’s Beethoven Seventh was astonishing. It must be quite an achievement to inspire the Philharmonia to play several leagues below its real level, yet Hugh Wolff managed it. A raw-toned opening indicated the possibility some period-performance like ideas, but it turned out to be either plain lack of rehearsal or the Philharmonia on less-than-autopilot (or both, maybe). It is not unknown for orchestras to deliberately play below their best for conductors they either do not respect (or simply loathe). String scales were not entirely together (cellos were Czerny-like). The oboist seemed somehow to miss out a semiquaver at one point.

It is usually nice to have the first movement repeat, but with such band-masterly conducting it seemed less welcome on this occasion. A sense of the routine was omnipresent, most obviously in the continuing slip-shod orchestral playing. Split notes from horns don’t usually get much comment, but it is really difficult to miss the first note of the second horn solo in the slow movement, unless you’re just not thinking or caring (or even trying to miss). Unsurprisingly, like so much of this performance, it went.

There were interesting moments – making the second horn stop the low neighbour-note figure in the Trio of the third movement, for example (by the way, why were there four horn players on stage for two parts?). This particular movement was sprightly, just not always together in the strings. And the finale was strange in neither having a dance-like character, nor having great drive (the two main interpretative roads one can follow). The great cello and double-bass ostinato went for nothing and the mass of noise the horns made at the peroration was just that. With so little interpretative preparation, the climax could hardly have been otherwise. It did kind of sum up the entire evening, though.

Colin Clarke

Further Listening:

Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1: Gilels; Berliner Philharmoniker/Jochum DG 447 446-2

Beethoven 7: VPO/Kleiber DG SACD 471 630-2

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