In this post-truth age of ours, grey is the new full colour spectrum, each individual shade being refracted into hundreds of prismatic tints. All three works in this concert given by the London Symphony Orchestra could be classified as instances of “grey” repertory, just ideal - one might think - for a wintry January evening. In the right hands even shades of grey can be warm to the touch.
Grey is the predominant colour of the opening section of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto: under a lowering sky there are imposing rolls of thunder from the timpani, impetuous snarls from the brass and a witches’ coven of shrieks from the wind as the storm breaks, convincingly unleashed by Alpesh Chauhan, making his debut with the orchestra. By the time the tempest had subsided and Benjamin Grosvenor – also a debutant with the LSO – made his first entry, it was easy to understand why the first audiences, in Hanover and then in Leipzig, were so unsettled by this work, leading the composer himself to describe it as “a glittering and decisive failure”. The writing is spare, bleak and taut, with no concessions to the spirit of the time which expected displays of dazzling virtuosity. There is not much sunshine in this grey northern world. And yet, are there not colours of a kind in the gently falling rain and the parting of the clouds? Certainly, the chamber-like delicacy of much of Grosvenor’s playing, ably supported by the LSO’s wind soloists and horn section, made this a reading of considerable subtlety, with the rhapsodic elements in the development section benefiting from a clarity of tone and phrasing.
It was the saturnine bassoons that led the way into the Adagio, with the wind choir clad in colours of mourning and the strings dark-robed, matching Grosvenor’s hushed playing and echoing the sound-world of the composer’s German Requiem that was to follow some seven years later. The grief-stricken sentiment of this movement is self-evident, inspired first by the attempted suicide and then the death of Brahms’ close friend and fellow composer Schumann, and it found its culmination in a succession of fine trills and half-tones in the dying pages, beautifully suggestive of fading light at the close of day.
Grosvenor clearly sees this entire concerto as chamber music writ large, but the finale needed something of the barnstorming heroics Brahms surely had in mind here. This is, after all, a young man’s concerto and one needs to feel that the soloist is straining at the leash, rather than repeating the restraint of the earlier two movements. There are obvious parallels with Beethoven’s C minor concerto, with strutting tenths in the left hand that should give a bounce to the music. This reading was just a little too controlled: Chauhan was an attentive accompanist but he did little to fully exploit the spring-coils of energy in the score.
Somewhat surprisingly, since he had scaled down the size of his string section for the concerto, Chauhan chose to deploy a full complement for the St Anthony Variations that followed after the interval. The exact provenance of the musical idea that provided Brahms with the inspiration for this work has never been satisfactorily established, but the progenitor was certainly not Haydn. Wind textures were highlighted in Variations II and III, with playing that was spick-and-span without being particularly inspired; bleached colours were once again pre-eminent. These movements need, however, more than a little love if they are not to sound under-characterised. In Variation VI, Brahms is at his most unbuttoned and ebullient, which was scarcely realised despite the emphatic contributions from the timpani. In Variation VII we are into thematic territory from the Third Symphony and the somewhat four-square phrasing vitiated the lilting, wistful quality of the writing.
Chauhan has most of the qualities of a good Kapellmeister: he cues efficiently and unobtrusively, he balances his sections well, his beat is precise yet always fluid, and the left hand draws elegant arcs of expression, and yet the ultimate spark of musical persuasion failed to come across in the three works he chose to conduct. I have heard visiting orchestras in the Barbican deliver the kind of string opulence that any work of Richard Strauss cries out for, so the blame for its absence in Tod und Verklärung cannot solely be laid at the door of this hall’s acoustics. Despite gleaming brass and eloquent wind playing, there was none of the velvet and dark chocolate that this piece of fin de siècle decadence commands. The great Viennese critic Hanslick recognised in this – as in the other tone poems he wrote – Strauss’ gift for writing pure music drama. In a work which takes you from the cradle to the grave you need to feel all the emotions of a lifetime.
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