| Birmingham Symphony Hall
|Birmingham Symphony Hall, Broad Street, Birmingham B1, United Kingdom|
Wednesday 25-Jan-12 07:30pm
Two firsts for the price of one. The anticipated Piano Concerto no. 2 by Brahms was replaced by no. 1, as it suited French pianist Hélène Grimaud’s recording commitments with Deutsche Grammophon. Would the audience be taking a risk opting (perhaps unwittingly) for a double dose of early works, written before the composers’ output reached full maturity? If the extended applause at the end of each half was any indication, not at all. Frequent concertgoers to Symphony Hall would in any case be familiar with Andris Nelsons’ fine interpretations of Tchaikovsky’s later symphonies, gradually being built up into a portfolio of recordings.
Both pieces were written during the composers’ mid-twenties, but it seems they had old heads on young shoulders. Tchaikovsky agonised long and hard, claiming that completing it to his satisfaction might be the death of him. Panic attacks weren’t helped by his teachers’ unfavourable comments, and the development of the individual movements had a chequered history. Even after a successful performance of the entire piece, Tchaikovsky made further revisions. Whether he’d found his musical identity or not at this point, his first symphony certainly delighted this audience with its assured melodies and skilful orchestration.
From the outset, the shimmering strings of the Allegro (Daydreams of a Winter Journey) conjured up a suitably chilly feel, Nelsons’ stance enticing emotion from the players as the theme was passed around each section. I’d deliberately chosen a seat ‘keyboard-side’ for a prime view of the pianist’s hands during the Brahms, and this serendipitously meant that I could also catch glimpses of the conductor’s facial expressions. He was enjoying himself! I also saw how tiny was the Tchaikovsky score he worked from, dwarfed by the music stand, such that I feared for his eyesight. The frantically-turned pages reinforced a sense of forward momentum; we were on our way. The Adagio felt like a serious conversation on a snowy walk, fabulous woodwind wringing out maximum poignancy, punctuated by a contrasting horn entry and followed by a hushed passage of stillness. In my mind’s eye, the sounds were muffled by towering trees. The playful waltz theme of the Scherzo built to a false climax, followed by a reprise, incorporating an intense crescendo with the addition of timpani like thunder. The Finale took us back to the original theme, very slow and sombre, but then brightened by the flute and eventually accelerating until the entire orchestra including drums and cymbals were going full throttle. The walk had become a mad dash.
The circumstances around Brahms’ first piano concerto were rather morbid for one so young, linked to Schumann’s attempted suicide, mental illness and death. The work underwent painstaking transformations, starting out as a two-piano sonata, developing into a draft symphony, before piano and orchestra were afforded the ultimate balance of a concerto. This teamwork was evident in a physical sense on stage at Symphony Hall, with the Steinway straddling the podium, emphasising the close partnership between the soloist, conductor and orchestra. The young pianist Hélène Grimaud displayed poise and maturity. Following the drama of the orchestra’s lengthy introduction to the Maestoso, the first solo piano section was both captivating and soothing. Once the orchestra and piano joined forces the work gathered pace and intensity.
The flying fingers – mirrored in the highly polished woodwork – were as visually appealing as the accomplished playing of all the musicians was a treat to the ears. In the Adagio the subtlety of the orchestra seemed to provide a supportive arm to a movement which was meditative, full of light and shade in the dynamics, full of emotion in the tempo. The vigorous Rondo, featuring a fugue that was as fascinating to watch as to hear, rounded off an evening of first-class entertainment.