Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO/Harding @ Barbican Hall, London

14 December 2008

The LSO did its bit to fight the recession tonight, with so many musicians they packed the stage to capacity. Ticket sales were healthy, too, and the performance definitely lifted the spirits! The big draw was Brahms’ Piano Concerto. No 1. It’s massive, more a symphony than a concerto.

The orchestra is dominant, the piano part isn’t flamboyantly flashy, as is the usual case with High Romantic concerti. Perhaps it’s significant that this was written after the suicide of Robert Schumann, Brahms’ friend and mentor. Brahms was a pianist, so perhaps the piano part expresses something about their relationship. From the first bars, the mood is sombre, building up to a huge wall of anguished, impassioned sound that almost engulfs the piano.

The LSO played with nervy, muscular energy. Anyone expecting the sentimental stereotype of Brahms was in for a shock. Yet Daniel Harding is careful to emphasise the gentler, elegiac detail in the Adagio, so Lars Vogt’s piano can state its case clearly. When the wild final movement unfolds, we remember why the understated piano part is fundamental to the duality of the piece.

Even more gargantuan was Augusta Read Thomas’ Helios Chronos, receiving its world premiere. This is the middle movement from a large triptych, which will eventually be expanded still further. No less than four orchestras on two continents are involved in the commission. It’s an extravaganza, full of incident and theatrical effects, as it’s meant to be choreographed. Pre-recession confidence! Wild applause indicates it should be very popular as spectacle. Without the extra movements, though, it’s hard to tell where it’s going as music.

The most impressive piece in pure performance terms was Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. Although it is so well known, it’s quite difficult to pull off successfully. Yet Harding showed new insights into how it functions. The piano, celeste and harp were seated in the centre of the orchestra, so the pizzicato sections seemed a natural extension of the harp, and the percussion of the piano.

The fine balance made the wavering fugue sound all the more ethereal, particularly in the mysterious third movement. It’s worth remembering that the dances in the Finale are Bartók, not folk transcriptions. So it was appropriate that in this performance, the celeste sounded like an enhanced cimbalom, that most evocative of Hungarian instruments.

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