Five concerts in to the London Philharmonic’s ‘2020 Vision’ series of 20 concerts, and, after a hiatus on Wednesday-last without Beethoven (Spohr was the substitute), here Osmo Vänskä – eschewing simple party pleasures on his 67th birthday – opened with Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto from 1805, aided and abetted by American pianist Jeremy Denk. This was no routine performance, even if Denk perhaps erred on the side of caution when it came to poetry.
Clear and focussed, Denk presented the solo piano part with a mixture of crystalline dexterity and cool demeanour. Beethoven’s innovation here was the opening gambit for the piano alone, just five bars – Denk subtle and contained in the quaver tracery that forms the kernel of the movement – before turning back to tradition for an extended orchestral introduction (Beethoven was more radical in the Emperor, with more of a dialogue between soloist and orchestra). Vänskä seized the day with his honing of the orchestral tutti, this was no mere accompanying. His attention to detail, to orchestral timbre, to light and shade – suddenly dropping almost to his knees to indicate pianissimo – was fascinating, with thrilling audible results. He also brought out connections to both Beethoven’s Pastoral and Seventh Symphonies: these similarities (to the former at the end of the first movement; the foreshadowing of the latter’s finale in the third movement’s rush to the end) I’d not consciously recognised before.
Notable in the slow movement was Vänskä’s sonorous strings in their strident outbursts, tamed by Denk’s ever-more ameliorating and softening answering passages, gently taking the massed instruments’ forceful edge and calming them (often likened to Orpheus taming the furies of the Underworld), leading directly into the spirited finale. Here again Vänskä found subtlety, from Kristina Blaumane’s solo cello accompaniment to Denk’s assumption of the theme, like a throwback to a Baroque continuo, to a piquant quality to Jonathan Davies’s bassoon part, which all seemed to jump out as fresh and inspired. Not for the first time this year, Beethoven has proved fresh and convincing in his 250th anniversary year.
Following spontaneous applause that had greeted the first movement and a rapturous ovation at the end from a modestly sized audience, Denk quietly apologised for the encore before he played a ragtime version of Wagner’s Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannhäuser, with a vamping left hand that may well have sent Wagner into a tailspin. Research subsequent to the performance identifies this as a thoroughly tongue-in-cheek arrangement by jazz pianist Donald Lambert.
Post interval the clock moved forward 200 years, to 2005 for Penderecki’s continuing involvement with his 1980 Polish Requiem (he may well add to it further). The latest addition, now 15 years ago, was this string orchestra memorial to his friend, the quondam actor Karol Wojtyula and, later, Pope John Paul II, who died on 2 April 2005. The Chaconne is a typically sinuous and emotional piece, mournful in its yearning phrases, and has inspired various arrangements from Penderecki (the last in 2015 for six cellos). A central section seems to break out of the Baroque constraints and suddenly rise in anguished pitch looking back to Penderecki’s former style. But calm returns, the ground bass picked out in low pizzicato, before another rise in pitch and temperature and the final slowing to the end, led by David Quiggle’s sorrowful viola.
To end, we turned back the clock half way between the two opening works, to 1905 for Enescu’s First Symphony. The programme note likened the first movement to Beethoven’s Eroica and the second to Wagner, but it struck me that the opening triple-time movement was more akin to Dvořak’s Sixth Symphony, and the slow movement was more post-Wagnerian, like a collision between Debussy’s and Schoenberg’s almost-contemporary sound worlds for their respective Pelleas and Melisandes. And then, in wonder, I heard premonitions of later symphonists with a connection to Paris – Honegger and Martinů – as well as Hindemith. Who knows when Enescu’s First Symphony was last played in London (none of the symphonies have graced the Proms, I checked) – and yet on the strength of this outing it would be a shame not to hear it occasionally.
The sheer propulsion of the first (with its opening brass paean) and last movements, framing the nocturne-like atmosphere of the central slow movement, with its horn solo to start (guest principal, Stephen Craigen) and the exquisite final bars for solo viola and four cellos, made their mark under Vänskä’s ardent advocacy, in a performance just shy of 32 minutes (George Georgescu’s 1942 recording, and Rozhdestvensky’s 1996 Chandos recording both come in around the 35 minute mark). And while there must have been other (much better known) candidates to represent 1905 in the ‘2020 Vision’ series, one can only be thankful to have been introduced so magnificently to this work. With Jurowski reprising his interpretation of Enescu’s Third Symphony when we get to the 18th instalment of the series (2 December) we only need a performance of the Second Symphony to complete the set (although, technically, there are four study symphonies and, drafted but unfinished, Fourth and Fifth Symphonies as well).
Regrettably, microphones were not in place to commit this memorable concert to an electronic afterlife.