Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1, Symphony No. 1. Hélène Grimaud (pn), Hannu Lintu (cond.), Philharmonia, Royal Festival Hall, London, 10.10.13
Andris Nelsons called in sick for this evening’s concert, which was a shame, but it did give London audiences a rare chance to sample the talents of one of Finland’s rising stars, Hannu Lintu. He’s a different kind of conductor, and lacks that sense of continuous flowing energy that makes Nelsons’ performances so coherent and intense. Lintu is a tall, wiry figure who communicates to his players through sudden, jerky movements. To illicit a hard accent or punch chord, he’ll throw a crazy shape, all bowed legs and outstretched arms, just ahead of the beat, then freeze until the music catches up. Those individual events come out great, but it hardly helps the music to flow.
Hélène Grimaud is the exact opposite. Her playing is all about continuity, with seamless legato and flowing lines. The Brahms First Piano Concerto that opened the concert worked best when a constructive tension was achieved between conductor and pianist, Lintu picking out the dramatic moments, Grimaud weaving them together through her long, lyrical lines at the piano. Sadly, these were the exception rather than the rule, and the tensions that characterised this reading were mostly unbalanced and unresolved. Brahms is partly to blame: his symphonic aspirations distort many aspects of this concerto, and it is up to the players to find a way to rein the often overblown music into the work’s formal parameters. This is where Grimaud’s approach pays dividends. She always seems sceptical of Brahms’ more extrovert gestures, the huge block chords or the Beethovenian oppositions between soloist and orchestra in the first movement. Her solution is to round off the edges, to play even the most grandiose music with an even legato and a warm tone. Lintu, by contrast, goes for broke with the grand symphonic gestures. In the first movement the orchestra struggled to give him what he was looking for; there were a number of ensemble problems in the strings in the louder passages and some distinctly inelegant playing from the winds. The slow movement worked better, mainly because it could rely more on Grimaud’s lyrical playing. And the finale worked better still, as Grimaud took a completely different approach to the music. From the very opening, she played with a more focussed and more staccato touch – that opening flourish was like a breath of fresh air. This, and every later statement of the rondo theme, was played with precision and clarity, really bringing out the counterpoint between the hands. In the lyrical interludes, she returned to her trademark legato, but as a contrast to the more incisive style of the main theme this worked well. The orchestra also made more sense out of the finale, giving a performance that was as dramatic as that of the first movement, but now with a real sense of direction and purpose.
After the interval came Brahms’ First Symphony, which turned out to be a similarly mixed bag. Lintu seemed more comfortable with this work, and better able to marshal the orchestral forces when needed. But it still lacked focus and there was rarely any sense of adventure. New themes and ideas were presented with the correct tempos and dynamic relationships, but without any sense of surprise or that something new was happening. There was some elegant playing from the orchestra in the inner movements, especially from the leader and from the woodwind soloists, but up until the end of the third movement, this didn’t seem like a particularly inspired reading. But, just as in the concerto, the music really took off in the finale. Perhaps Brahms had a hand in this, saving his most inspired ideas until the end of the work. Perhaps you just can’t go wrong with the finale of this symphony. Whatever the reason, there was some great playing here. The trombones totally nailed their chorale toward the start of the movement. The horns had sounded quite course earlier on, but suddenly their interjections lifted the music. And the string section, which had only had a reasonable evening up until this point, suddenly found the coherency of tone they were looking for and were able to focus the sound of the whole orchestra, even in the loudest climaxes towards the end.
A serviceable evening of Brahms, then, from Grimaud, Lintu and the Philharmonia forces, but not an exceptional one. It was engaging at the time, but chances are all memory of it will evaporate in a week or two, when Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhaus roll into town to give us their versions of these great works.