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Ionarts-at-Large: Beethoven Between Agony and Delight

In the past I’ve come to use “Speech!” as a shortcut for condemning ill advised, variously inane pre-concert rambling. The Munich Philharmonic’s concert last Saturday provided an unfortunate opportunity to dig that out again, when the orchestra’s intendant came on stage with a lachrymose face, waved away the budding, Hélène Grimaud-cancellation-fearing applause with a meek gesture, and then nattered about the earthquake-tsunami tragedy in Japan in an awfully roundabout way, went on how the Munich Philharmonic had a special relationship with Japan (since two—2!—players hailed from the land of the rising sun and because the orchestra had toured Japan in the past and—perfect plug!—will tour it again in the future), and finally proclaimed that he now would like to ask people to stand up and join him in a minute of silence.

You see nothing wrong with this? How about if I opened this review thus: “I would like to dedicate this review to all the victims of the recent Tsunami; to the Japanese People in this hour of darkness…” You'd rightly call me out as ludicrously pompous; the mental indigestion of a self-absorbed twat… made even worse if I tried to rationalize it by citing my own special [purely hypothetical, of course] relationship with at least two Japanese musicians.

This kind of public condoling would speak to my self importance and perhaps a narcissistic personality disorder, but it would change nothing—absolutely nothing—about the tragedy on the ground. A private act of thoughtfulness turned into self-serving shallow and public emoting demeans any strand of good intention that may have been at its root. Donate, if there’s a cause or need. Pray, if you believe. But do it privately. Public condolences are the prerogative of leaders of state or those who contribute something meaningful. (If this particular clumsy speech had led up to the announcement of the evenings’ proceeds or the soloists’ fee being donated, it would have been acceptable, for example.) In any case don’t jump the disaster-bandwagon with an empty gesture that serves only to pat ourselves on the back afterwards for our touching sensitivity.

Brahms, at last: The Haydn Variations started with a vivid whimper before turning sluggish—woken only for the oddly charming pronounced rhythms of the Sixth Variation (Vivace) that had elements of an Elephant tripping over his outsized sneakers.

Hélène Grimaud’s best quality is perhaps the absence of pretentiousness. Last heard in London, she’s never really excited me in her painfully limited concerto repertoire, but she’s certainly never disappointed me. I find her playing a bit too clunky and too one-dimensional to compare her with the understated no-nonsense greats à la Wilhelm Backhaus or Clifford Curzon—but I’d rather hear a Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto played straight than with too much perfume and bells and whistles and ego super-glued to every second bar. [Not that I don’t make exceptions…] And in Mme. Grimaud there is something—although I can’t quite put my finger on what it is—that stands between her monochromatic renditions and the tediousness that a lesser, if similar straight-forward, bland pianist would evoke.

Or so I thought.

available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Piano Concerto No.5,
Grimaud / Jurowski / Dresden StKp.
available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven, Symphonies 7 - 9,
Thielemann / Vienna Philharmonic
C Major 3 DVDs
For most of the first movement I thought that “tediousness” would be too unkind a description for the performance… but that “boring” would serve nicely as the adjective of choice. Nothing at all happened—except for one and the same continuous, predictable sound mass to emerge from the mechanical soloist and the dull orchestra. Sometimes it was loud, sometimes louder. I would like to say that the slow tempi of the Adagio un poco molto were justified by a particular intense lyricism… alas: No. Not really. Not at all, actually. At this point I toyed with the idea of damning with faint praise, call the affair “nice”, and blot it out of memory as soon as I left my seat for intermission. But no, in the transition between the second and third movement Grimaud threw even the last strand of unpretentiousness over board with a mannerism of epic proportions as she went for a horrifyingly gratuitous ritardando-that-was-none, ground everything to a halt, and then jumped into and through the finale as if she had forgotten an appointment and could not even be bothered to play all the notes until she got there. The reception was thunderous all the same—after all we’re dealing with the combination of three big ticket items (Beethoven, Thielemann, and especially Grimaud)—but it’s impossible to think that Mme. Grimaud herself wasn’t aware that this was not her finest hour.

Would Beethoven’s Seventh spell redemption? Whoooom. Thielemann attacks the first chord with such vigor that I imagined him saying: “Sorry about that just now… Tablua Rasa, OK?! Let’s enjoy ourselves!” And sure enough: this heavy working, variously light and delicate, then rambunctious and hard edged Seventh was the epitome of an interpretation with personality and musical sensibility stamped all over it. It could of course still be perfectly possible to dislike CT’s Beethoven. But it is impossible not to find it intriguing and interesting. He has a point, he makes it well, and most of the players go all out in giving him what he asks for. Thielemann’s interpretations are, by and large, not narcissistic or sloppy or both, but deeply considered and carefully executed. And here was Beethoven operatic in its drama, extraordinarily flexible in its tempos, rich in color, brawny and nimble, and with dynamics that went well beyond “louder here /less loud there”. It was the quickening restorative—and more—that Mme. Grimaud had made so necessary. Even Thielemann was happy—the third time he came on stage, called back by the ‘bravos’ that instantly drowned a few errant, possibly political ‘boos’, he hopped onto the rostrum with all the delight of a gleeful, candy shop-bound young boy.

1 comment:

Martin Fritter said...

I have no idea if this is accurate or fair, but it's great fun to read.

I heard Grimuad at Shriver Hall in Baltimore a few years ago. She played the Bach/Busoni D-minor Chaconne, a set of late Brahms and the Rachmaninoff B-minor Sonata, the last, being terrible, can't be played well. The Brahms suited her very well, I thought.

I noticed that she was touring the east coast repeating the same program everywhere.