- Concert Rondo, K. 386
- Piano Concerto No. 4
- Symphony No. 7
- Ashot Khachatourian
- Maria João Pires
- Christopher Warren-Green
Music with a mission: this was the conclusion one made listening to Christopher Warren-Green’s chat with Maria João Pires, which began the concert. Praise to introduce her. Praise (applause) when she took her bows some time after. For us who heard her play, continued joy in our hearts on tube rides, Boris bikes, cars and buses homeward. A gift of music.
The twenty minute talk was focussed on Pires Partitura project and her work in Brazil. Pires emerged as an artist humble and honest, a woman firmly believing in the transformative power of music. Or at least that was the opinion of Warren-Green, with which she, after hesitation and pause agreed. Hesitation because humble, pause because of her honesty. Answers and responses were carefully considered. Questions became nuanced in their answering.
It is clear that Pires approaches her music with this same mind. There is with Pires an unswerving commitment and intent to edify and to get ther with playing which reveals itself as nuanced, carefully considered, humble.
With Warren-Green she compared playing to life, and only life. Moreover, she said, life as risk. Playing piano as risk. (NB this is to be distinguished from taking risk when playing!) An illuminating twenty minutes.
After the talk, our first piece. Khachatourian gave a pleasing rendition of Rondo K386, a bit of an amuse bouche before Pires’s cocncerto. The LCO charmed, in no small part because the piece (nearly lost to us) is Mozart in fine song: decorous, and refined, a little gem.
Ashot Khachatourian played with intelligence and care, but I wasn’t quite struck by his musical personality at first. He drew the melodies in the right hand with pleasant clarity of phrasing. Curt and neat, at times even tending towards clipped, yet the playing was well wrought throughout.In accompaniment, the LCO were delightful. (My only negative point: Mr Kahachatourian also has a tendency to ‘munch’ his notes – to move his mouth in time with each note, which can be distracting. A tiny point. I know from experience that it is hard not to do so when one feels the music so stirringly as he does- and it is perhaps to their detriment that many others are otherwise so literally tight lipped in expression. (Equally, if denied expression in the face, one might imagine it finding release in playing?) After all, Joy, rapture, force (all related to flow) must will out as it will. A little distracting then, the conscious framing of his lips in accord with the notes, but excusable, harmless.
If Mr Khachatourian offered us naked intelligence and facility, then Ms Pires offered us wisdom and artistry in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano concerto.
Phrasing in the first and last movements was hard edged, any impulse towards romantic gestures and overly-lyrical tinting was eschewed.
The programme notes remind us that this concerto is ordinarily seen as a dialogue between piano and orchestra. There is dialogue, but to what extent depends upon how much the pianist allows it. Here, a decision for less dialogue: Pires tended toward statement rather than consent.
Lyricism was of course to be found in the second movement, but in Pires’ interpretation, it was almost a conscious turning away from the hoary trope of ‘Orpheus Taming the Furies’. Here was no soporific or sweet sleep of enchantment, but instead the force of logic , musical logic. This was a conversation based on negotiation rather than entreaty. And yet it wasn’t arid for it. Pires held us rapt, her playing achieving a delicate tension all the same. The closing phrase of this Andate especially gorgeous, a summation of the movement, and a moment in exquisite equipoise.
The cadenza in movement 1 was as written by Beethoven, Pires investing it with a wonderful coherency, making it sound as if from one of his sonatas. The final movement had a few flubs but these are all forgiven, minor, irrelevant. If Pires is a treasure (and she is,) then she is all the more so for being human and humble. A lady in the cellos section was visibly moved on her accepting of our applause. More was to follow.
Warren-Green had earlier suggested that Ms Pires had gone ‘where angels fear to tread,’ by which he meant she had forayed into favellas, as if to bring the light of music to the dark.
In Pires’ encore, we saw beyond this earthly mission, perhaps to its goal, a glimpse of higher mission. This may sound pretentious, but Truth can truly communicate through Beauty, and here we had both. Thus, Kachatourian and Pires together at the piano: Kurtág’s Bach sonata transcription for four hands started, shone brightly, then was gone. Within sixteen bars of the start, I found myself sitting there with a tear rolling down my cheek, partly due to Bach’s titanic genius, partly due to Kurtág and partly due to this offering given here. I am disinclined to such emotion, habitually stony faced, yet this was the result. Bach before us, Pires crossing the gap of generations, Partitura fulfilled.
Truly an Orphic moment – and in conception so hushed, a perfect counterpoint to the bombast of Beethoven’s third movement. We were there, given grace, then with it ended, brought back to earth, exhaling as one, charmed; murmuring appreciation. The woman in the cellos wiping away tears. I too, struck by the simple phrases but more, struck by the presence of a great musical intellect giving of itself freely.
Heard from the audience immediately after: “Astonishing. Just the best. Such a different way of playing. So strong.” From the two Russian ladies (fashionably late) in front of me, a fervent discussion about Romantic gesture and phrasing. Genuine affection from us and the orchestra.
and then in the interval a welcome chance to reflect, to choke up again upon recollection of that Kurtag.
There were a few empty seats upon our return to the auditorium, the 7th perhaps pedestrian for some. If for some, not for me!
In it, the LCO set out their stall early. Warren-Green roused his troops who rose to the ocassion. Indeed, to judge by the grins and smiles from all, they relished it as if in their element. One imagines they were.
From the off, a virile sound belying their small number. Brisk tempos, even in the often slow Allegretto. Where so many conductors see the movement as slightly funereal or dour, Warren-Green turned away from this as Pires has done in her playing. No trudge in a cemetery this. Instead as with Pires, lean, actually quite brisk, unfussy. I will own to slightly missing the slowness, but Warren-Green’s reading was successful.
Warren-Green had decided on the inclusion of a Contrabassoon, a nod to Beethoven who himself chose two to augment the bass section when the symphony was first given. This made for some interesting moments, and for some swampy-sounding introductions of phrases for that section. Once I got used to it though, it was a clever device which worked.
The third movement passed by jauntily, and such was the pace of the fourth that it teetered on the edge of disintegration but Warren-Green’s sure hand kept it together. The piece almost rushed and surged as if alive. (Here was the first ever marking of “fff,” we were told before they began, and it sounded like it.) The group fully invested in the piece, smiles, broken bow strings, lots of horsehair left discarded on the floor, the expenditure of energy quite phenomenal – the more so for being taken all standing up! (with the exception of the cellos). The London Chamber Orchestra played like demons as they raced to the end. Less the apotheosis of dance, and more a dash, for no one could dance to this! We cheered at the final chord: mission success.
A fully satisfactory evening. 8/10.
Happy to report, no poor behaviour!
For more on Pires’ approach, this video offers an insight.