Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37; Foulds: April - England; Strauss: Ein Heldenleben

Lewis, Hallé Orchestra/Elder

Royal Albert Hall, 8 August 2010 4 stars

sir-mark-elder-by-simon-doddIf turn-of-the-century British composer John Foulds (1880-1939) had been alive today, he would surely have been delighted to behold the Hallé Orchestra giving the Proms premiere of his tone poem April – England. He himself had joined the Mancunian ensemble as a 'cellist in 1900, and his father was a bassoonist with them. The piece—originally composed for solo piano—is brimming with ambitious textures and noteworthy timbral juxtapositions. When the central section appears, its principal melody is first presented as a striking duet for horn and piccolo. At times it did, admittedly, sound as if we were hearing an English version of Rachmaninov, with a couple of (presumably inadvertent) quotations from the slow movement of the Russian's Second Piano Concerto. Though, ultimately, not the most coherent of musical arguments, the work received a conservatively spirited account from the Hallé and their Music Director Sir Mark Elder, firmly—but not ardently—putting forward its case.

Elder and the Hallé were perhaps a little over-ardent in the ensuing orchestral exposition which opens Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor. Clipped rests and balance issues between strings and woodwind robbed the passage of its rhythmic fervency, instead bestowing upon it an air of mundane inevitability. Thankfully, soloist Paul Lewis—making the fourth stop on his Beethoven concerto tour at this year's Proms—duly introduced a sense of wonder and exhilaration, ensuring that the audience witnessed a sometimes feisty, sometimes lyrical, always profoundly sensitive rendition.

Though the orchestra responded to the pianist's decree and were, overall, a galvanised and responsive sparring partner, this was a performance dominated by Lewis' heavyweight musicianship and palpable disregard for "playing it safe". The fiery first-movement Allegro con brio was delivered with authoritative octaves and dazzling semiquaver flourishes—occasionally subsiding to bask in the contentedness of the second subject—before culminating in a sweeping, thunderous cadenza that had the Albert Hall patrons mesmerised. The Rondo finale was subject to a similarly array of well-executed risks, Lewis' carefree casting aside of Beethoven's torrential passagework proving a scintillating means of channelling the work's insistent seriousness. Between these two powerhouses the Largo glowed with exquisite phrasing and an ever-present cantabile melodic line, though without quite plumbing the depths of Beethoven's luxuriant harmonies.

Both conductor and orchestra seemed more at ease in the late Romantic, early modern territory of Richard Strauss' epic Ein Heldenleben. The French horn players—all eight of whom have started working overtime by the end of the all-consuming opening gambit—were, indeed, heroic throughout, their ringing top notes thrillingly piercing the composer's opaque orchestral textures. The music representing the critics was marvellously raucous and cacophonic, spat out by woodwind and brass with rasping venom. That the ensemble occasionally teetered at this stage only added to the sense of chaos that Strauss was aptly illustrating. Leader Lyn Fletcher's depiction of the composer's wife on solo violin was nothing short of masterful. Her heartfelt tone was extraordinary for exuding intense passion without ever becoming maudlin or overwrought, lavishing the hall with exceptional warmth and gemütlichkeit.

This was a performance of burning intimacy and bracing climaxes. Sporadic instances of hesitant intonation or suspect togetherness were always quickly superseded by passages of sheer splendour. Yet, for all the individual plaudits that one could list, arguably the greatest triumph of this account was its tremendous impact as a whole. Each of its fifty tumultuous minutes was deftly crafted by Elder, and his musicians responded in kind. As echoes of the final E-flat major chord drifted into space, giving way to a breathtaking, awe-inspired silence amongst the thousands in attendance, the transcendent power of this music was made magnificently clear to all.

By William Norris

Photo: Mark Elder by Simon Dodd

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