Maria João Pires playing the piece in the second of her two concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra. Although her tone was creamy and her attack delicate, Pires gave the overall impression of being overstretched and exhausted by the demands of the work. The tempo taken by the conductor Bernard Haitink in the first movement was an extremely loose and slow interpretation of an Allegro, which ought to have improved clarity at the very least.
But no. Pires was unassertive, and in the Presto third movement (again too slow) various rests and slurs were ignored, with the pedal being stuck down through bars in which Mozart implies a sparse texture. Every time Pires approached a climax, such as that massive solo piano ascent to a high F in the final movement, she backed off and the potential tension was released too early. The man on the aisle opposite me slept through the whole concerto, whilst many others took it as the perfect excuse to leaf through their programmes.
The slow movement was faster than the first movement, interestingly, and Haitink achieved some wonderful wind sonorities. But Pires spoiled the romantic mood of the opening by making a glaring error during her second entry, redolent of a general technical insecurity that spread to the orchestra and caused a bland performance of one of Mozart’s fieriest works.
After the interval, it was a very different orchestra and conductor on the stage. Or so it seemed; every member of the LSO on the edge of his or her seat, and spirited conducting from Haitink. This was a magnificent, near-ideal performance of Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony that embraced the music’s enigmatic qualities and revelled in its opportunities for virtuosic ensemble playing.
The first movement juxtaposes witty reminiscences of Rossini’s William Tell overture (jauntily played by the trumpets and trombones on this occasion) with an icy combination of glockenspiel and solo flute. The appearance of the strings brought crisp contrapuntal playing, with searing tremolandi; leader Gordan Nikolitch provided numerous notable solos, again demonstrating his technical finesse.
Haitink’s response to the second movement was also inspired – sensitive conducting of the solo cello section (soul-searchingly performed by Tim Hugh) was succeeded by a whirlwind rendering of the main theme by the whole orchestra. The reply of the muted trumpets came as a poignant echo, and the ending with the vibraphone was eerily done.
The third movement had plenty of action, a mesmeric succession of pizzicato string passages, whilst the fourth was the perfect apotheosis of the rest. The return of the opening of the first movement theme on the vibraphone brought the listener full circle.