Devoted music lovers can be quick to criticise when soloists withdraw from performances for reasons often considered spurious: hiding from the opera house due to that malicious tickle in the throat, withdrawing from a recital due to the pressures of preparing for a new stage role the following week, creative differences; the list goes on. Few members of the audience at the Cadogan Hall for a visit from the NDR Radiophilharmonie could have felt let down by conductor Andrew Manze’s announcement that pianist Lars Vogt had been unable to perform due to the exceptionally overdue pregnancy of his wife. Igor Levit gamely replaced Vogt and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major replaced the originally programmed no. 2.

Andrew Manze © Benjamin Ealovega
Andrew Manze
© Benjamin Ealovega

First though a rousing rendition of the musical story of a certain Dutch aristocrat, Lamoral, Count of Egmont, whose resistance to Philip II’s introduction of the Inquisition in the Netherlands resulted in a prompt decapitation, immortality via Goethe and a regular appearance in concert halls thanks to the overture from the incidental music composed by Beethoven for Goethe’s play. Manze led an account of theatrical intensity, the fortissimi bold and brazen with poignantly drooping woodwinds, superbly shaped, providing an additional layer of depth and texture. Vibrancy of sound in the opening attack was strong, and plush string playing did not obscure a cleanness of sound, even as Manze whipped the ensemble up into an energetic, gutsy finale. It was a fine introduction to the orchestra’s distinguishing tendencies; obvious harmony and cooperation between the sections, precision of approach and clear responsiveness to Manze’s energetic lead from the podium.

Igor Levit has been steadily building a reputation. He is a tried and tested Beethovenian and his performance here seemed deeply instinctive and totally lacking in artifice. Levit has the lightest touch, the opening a lover’s caress of tenderness and delicacy. Pellucid in tone and unrushed in pace, the definition and texture at the highest octaves were beautifully articulated, the lowest a warm and less defined seam running through his playing. His cadenza at the end of the first movement was a burst of electricity, the sound almost seeming to ribbon out in silken swirls. Manze’s great contribution here was to ensure that Levit was not overwhelmed by the orchestra and he achieved this without detriment to the quality of his band’s playing, dreamy cellos and crisp oboe perfectly complementing the piano. For an encore, Levit gave a pinpoint performance of Shostakovich’s Polka, a most appropriate sorbet to the Beethoven.

The biggest problem with Manze’s interpretation of Brahms Symphony no. 2 in D major was that the orchestra played it with the kind of gusto, grandeur and consequent volume more appropriate for a larger venue, which meant at times that some of the subtleties of the ‘louder’ moments were lost. The NDR Philharmonie was at its strongest here in moments of more reflective playing; the ruminative cellos at the start of the second movement, the saturnine bassoons full in tone next to the colourful lyricism of the oboes in the third movement. There was a slight fudge at the start of the fourth movement and one or two minor intonation issues in the brass, which tended to veer towards the strident, but it was a bold and cheerful interpretation from an orchestra and conductor whom one would hope to see again very shortly.