Opera + Classical Music Reviews

London Symphony Orchestra @ Barbican Hall, London

7 February 2008

For tonight’s concert in the LSO’s ‘Pure’ series, the focus was on Beethoven.

Led by period performance specialist Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the London Symphony Orchestra performed two of Beethoven’s greatest masterpieces, the luminous Fourth Piano Concerto and the revolutionary Third Symphony (Eroica).

As with their earlier Beethoven concert on 22 January, the results were mixed.

The concert began with a fine performance of the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus. After the dramatic opening chords, Gardiner shaped the lyrical introduction with much care and warmth, and brought a satisfying verve to the allegro. Although modern instruments were used, Gardiner acknowledged period conventions by the deployment of a reduced sized orchestra (about 60 players), vibrato-less string playing and antiphonal violins, all of which benefited the performance.

In the Fourth Piano Concerto, one seeks qualities other than clarity. These were provided in abundance by the Portuguese pianist Maria Joo Pires, whose playing communicated warmth, serenity and gentle longing. However, the orchestral accompaniment under Gardiner, though balanced, refined and respectful, did not communicate in quite the same way. In comparison with Pires’s lustrous pianism, the orchestral contribution seemed slightly short of charm and exhilaration in the outer movements and overly brusque in the Andante. Rather annoyingly, the Andante at its most hushed was disturbed by the rustling of a plastic bag somewhere in the auditorium.

Completed only a year after the Second Symphony, Beethoven’s Third represents a huge advance in ambition, scale and power. The first movement communicates an elemental energy, the music fresh and startling, and yet onward moving with a sense of inevitability. Gardiner’s presentation of this movement, however, felt more like a runaway train, hurtling along the straights and careering round bends, the richness of the symphonic journey lost to the relentlessness of the railway track. Despite the swift tempo, the music suffered not from speed but from lack of variation, the dynamic variations carefully observed but the phrasing abrupt and metrical.

A similar emphasis on precision underlined the great slow movement, the Marcia funebre. The careful delineation of the movement’s sonority and structure was not uninteresting but I didn’t feel the anguish and mourning of the funeral march. The scherzo and finale similarly suffered from a lack of joy, not helped by the penetratingly loud timpani.

Having performed these Beethoven works at a series of concerts in Europe over the last two weeks, there was no doubting the refinement and brilliance that Gardiner and the LSO brought to tonight’s concert, but ultimately it was frustrating to see the orchestra working so hard for so little emotional effect.

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