Friday 9 January 2009

Paul Lewis makes a magical return to the Queen's Hall (and something very odd happens in the north gallery)

I first encountered Paul Lewis at the Queen's Hall. It was about two and a half years ago and he was completing the first half of his live Beethoven sonata cycle in a programme that included the op.79, the Pastorale and the Hammerklavier. I hadn't planned to go, and probably wouldn't have, had I not been ordered out of the flat for an evening so that others could have it to themselves, and casting around for something to do I stumbled across it.

From the first moment I was hooked. There was a freshness to his playing; I'll be surprised if I hear a more tantalising and magical account of the op.79. The Hammerklavier was in some ways the most impressive, not least because I don't always care for it. As regular readers will know, I don't like pianists who thump, and the op.106 is a minefield that often degenerates into an orgy of hammering. The magic of Lewis was the weight he managed to bring without banging. Then there is the clarity of his playing. I could go on, and indeed I have: when he played the final concert in the series (shortly after this blog was founded) and more recently when he came to Glasgow to play Beethoven's second concerto.

Tonight he was back for something a little different in the form of Mozart's final piano concerto, the K595 in B flat major. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra are ideal accompanists for Mozart concertos. Anyone who's heard their recent discs of Mozart symphonies, or their concert or recorded performances of the concertos with Alfred Brendel and Charles Mackerras can attest to this. Unfortunately Mackerras wasn't on conducting duty. Instead we had to make do with Andrew Manze. However, there was no need for concern, at least not in the concerto. The orchestra played beautifully. Above them Lewis displayed the most incredible dexterity, not for him Goode's garbled notes. No, no matter how fast he played, everything was crystal clear. Manze kept the orchestra at a sensible volume and the balance between orchestra and soloist was always good. The cadenzas were spellbinding. It is true that the concerto didn't afford him the opportunity to display his power in the way that Beethoven's emperor will in June (with the LSO) but it allowed him to show the subtler side that first won me over in the op.79 sonata and which makes me hope that a future recording project is the Mozart concertos. I hope he picks the SCO for that. The performance was well received in the hall, indeed, most pianists the SCO plays with would have given an encore at this, Lewis knew not to. Good man. His biography in the programme has finally been updated to reveal with whom Beethoven concertos are being recorded. Sadly it is not my dream team of Mackerras/SCO or even Davis/LSO (I think Davis's Klempererian style would be a delightful match). Instead it is to be Belohavek (of whom I'm not nearly so much a fan as many other people) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Still, they will be a must hear for Lewis's pianism alone.

The rest of the concert was more mixed. It was part of the SCO's Mendelssohn anniversary celebrations, it is the bicentennial of his birth, though frankly rather tenuously so given what a small proportion of the concert the composer's music took. None the less they titled the concert The Fair Melusine, after the Mendelssohn overture that kicked things off. The programme note indicates that the overture of Rheingold was influenced by it, and certainly I heard that; I also heard things that sounded familiar from Verdi, but I can find no mention of that anywhere else. I'm generally somewhat ambivalent about Mendelssohn. He can be marvellous, but I think he needs to be played with real drive and zest, as, for example, Bernstein does in his late recordings with the Israeli Philharmonic or as Frans Bruggen did the last time he joined the SCO. Manze did not, and while there was nothing to be faulted with the orchestral playing, it was all just a little dull. As they played I remember the last time I had encountered Manze. It was in an SCO concert several years ago. The second half was a fairly indifferent performance of the Mozart Requiem. The first half contained a symphony by Eybler in D (with an incompetently written programme note by one Stephen Strungnell who neglected to list the movements, thus leading to applause between the fourth and fifth). Manze gave a very tedious speech before it about how he was an unjustly neglected contemporary of Mozart. He proceeded to give a performance that suggested to me that any neglect was fair enough.

After the interval he turned to address us. Interestingly, Lewis had sneaked into a stalls seat. Manze gave a long prattle about works composers had done when they were very young, told a few not especially amusing jokes, gave an extended advert for the rest of the Mendelssohn series and then told us they were going to play an extra work: the orchestration of the scherzo from his octet (which the SCO Ensemble are playing on Sunday 1st February, and which, infuriatingly, I will have to miss). Again, he told us, this was rarely performed. It sounded rather odd and thin, and, again, one could see why it was rare. He then insisted on speaking to us again before the finale - a performance of Schubert's fourth symphony - the tragic.

He suggested the name shouldn't be adhered to too rigidly. And, in fairness, his reading did eschew this. Probably for the best: heavy performances, such as Colin Davis's or Giulini's live BBC account, work because of their orchestras (in Davis's case the luxuriously heavy Dresden and the Philharmonia for Giulini). The SCO are different and a light approach is required. For the most part that was delivered, and the first two movements worked pretty well, solid if not in danger of being great. It was in the minuet that serious problems arose. The tempo was somewhat sluggish and the orchestra lacked the weight to carry it off. The finale was nice enough, but never any more than that. So somewhat disappointing, but it didn't really matter, it would have been worth sitting through anything for Lewis's performance.

But what about the north gallery mentioned in the title of this post? Well, midway through the slow movement of the concerto my attention was drawn away from the stage to the gallery standing space to my right. I saw a man storm out, turn, gesture and mutter something in a weirdly inaudible cross between a shout and a whisper. Standing at the far end of gallery were a man and woman looking furious. Then, midway through the finale, an usher came in and collected a coat from next to where they were standing. The couple were not there in the second half. All very curious. If you're able to shed any light, I'm curious.

Update 11/1/09

I've just been listening to a disc of Abbado and the London Symphony Orchestra playing Mendelssohn that I picked up in the sales. He too plays the scherzo from the octet, but with an incredible delicacy and playfulness which makes for a wonderfully enjoyable performance, far removed from Manze, and one which does indeed make you wonder if it is unjustly neglected.

Comments less far along the same line could also be made of their take on The Fair Melusine, though even they don't make it seem a great piece of music.

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