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Ionarts-at-Large: Maria João Pires and Markus Stenz in Beethoven

To speak of any Beethoven Piano Concerto as “the weakest” is quite outrageous, really, given how phenomenally excellent they all are. But if one had to find a relative weak spot in the lineup of the five mature works, the finger would have to be pointed at the earliest of them*, Concerto number two, opus 19†. It is fitting perhaps, that this concerto would be played by the most alluring of the pianists to perform in the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven concerto cycle: Maria João Pires. (An easier statement now, after Murray Perahia had to cancel and Paul Lewis was not on top of his game.) On this occasion, it was Markus Stenz, the chief conductor of Cologne’s Gürzenich Orchestra, who led the BRSO on the 13th and 14th of January.

available at AmazonF.Schubert, Works for 2 and 4 Hands,
Pires & Castro
available at AmazonP.Hindemith, Mathis der Maler Symphony et al.,
J. Belohlávek / Czech PO
With Mme. Pires, the impression of her performance extends well beyond the notes you hear. Even the way she approaches the piano—calm and with ever step as if buffered by clouds, the way she quietly sits down in front of the piano, all seems to foretell the grace of her playing and her unfussy determination. She achieves sweetness not by adding treacle but through intensely subtle naturalness. If nothing in her playing calls attention to itself outright, it is still easy to zoom in on her left hand’s mezzo-piano staccato notes: as vibrant in attack as possible, and yet perfectly gentle in volume. In that genial first movement only the labored cadenza didn’t seem to fit. The solo parts in the second movement rang out like little bells, and the respective last notes’ reverberations (the pedal held all through to her next entry) melted in with the orchestral sound to form a wondrous one. The frivolously coy opening of the third movement sounded as happy as a boy on Christmas looks, with his first electric train set before him. (Or whatever gets that gleam into the eyes of the young, these days.)

After the break it was a bit of anniversary-Mahler: Stenz, who is recording a complete Mahler cycle of his own (on Oehms), threw in “Blumine”‡, then followed Hindemith’s Mathis der Mahler Symphony. The symphonic depiction of Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece has three movements: The Angels’ Concert, The Entombment of Jesus, and The Temptation of St. Anthony. Tuneful vigor and directness make it one of Hindemith’s most popular pieces and it manages wonderfully to be modern and old fashioned at once. The performance could have been more engaged and engaging, but it was well cared for and detail-rich and it allowed the robustly entertaining nature to come out plenty well. If short of electrifying, this nicely capped a long musical evening that had started with Schreker’s “Prelude to a Drama”.

From the bubbling strings and the rising viola melody, the bell and the horn calls, that 20-minute work (based on the overture of his opera “Die Gezeichneten”) begins like an impressionist romantic dream only to make its way swiftly to a first climax. Thereon from it heads, by way of one ecstatic peak after another, to a hyperactive burst of chromatic beauty and then a quiet, very long exhalation. Even if this was ‘just’ the overture to the concert, it was worth alone attending the concert.

* The statement is made a little easier seeing how the master suggested so much himself. Of course it’s a neat thing, if you are really smart, to show how it isn’t Beethoven’s weakest concerto at all. After all, going against conventional wisdom is always the sign of the truly probing mind and towering intellect. In doing so, one can ever subtly show one’s superiority over those who cannot see beyond what everyone else is looking at. The snag in this case: Negating this particular bit of conventional wisdom would mean that another of Beethoven’s five concertos is the weakest. And I’d want to see anyone actually point that finger.

† The First Piano Concerto was composed in 1797, the core of the Second a decade earlier. The latter entered the canon only upon its second publication, now with a whole new finale, in 1801. By that time the First had already been published as “No.1, op.15”.

‡ A confirmation as to whether that was a hint about which version of the First Symphony Stenz might record for Oehms could not be had… though a Hamburg/Weimar version of “Der Titan” would be great to have from a first rate orchestra… whereas a ‘regular’ First with Blumine thrown in or tacked on would be old news.

1 comment:

Philip Amos said...

Glenn Gould (who else?) did exactly that, lauding the 2nd. and pointing the finger of derision at the 3rd. His argument can be found somewhere in his books of collected writings. I seem to recall that he was inclined to rank the 2nd. above the 1st, also, but I'm not so sure of that. If he made similar adversions re the 4th. and 5th., we'd have his complete ranking. A curiosity, but as I'm decidedly no fan of Gould's, not of great interest to me.