There are few more obvious examples of a mutual appreciation society among musicians than Brahms and Dvořák. One of the many kindnesses and instances of support that Brahms showed towards the Czech composer was in persuading his own publisher, Simrock, to take on his younger colleague’s work. Brahms once said that any composer would be honoured to have the ideas which Dvořák chose to discard. Many of the ideas not actually rejected turned out to be remarkably close to what Brahms himself might have written. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony, with its many parallels in the Finale to Brahms’ Second (key signature, opening tempo, theme and treatment), and written in 1880 just a few years after the start of this special musical friendship. The D major work is not heard in concert halls today as often as it deserves to be, so it was good to encounter it in one of its rare outings which took up the second half of this evening in which Pablo Heras-Casado conducted the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester.

Pablo Heras-Casado © Fernando Sancho
Pablo Heras-Casado
© Fernando Sancho

The Spanish conductor is a lively and energising presence on the podium with arms that often sweep the tempo on and hands that sculpt the air expressively. It was clear from the start that he wanted and indeed got incisive playing from the strings, their rhythmic propulsion being one of the hallmarks of this reading. Yet the composer’s marking non tanto was largely ignored, and much of the opening majesty that comes from a sense of reclining in an open carriage being pulled gently through the Bohemian countryside was missing. In the Adagio Heras-Casado kept things moving, clarifying textures and highlighting wind detail, but without much of a smile. Nor is there any reason to suppose that the Furiant folk-dance which is at the heart of the scherzo (admittedly marked Presto) needs to be played as fast as possible. Its particular energy comes from the interplay of duple-triple time and not so much from a Central European desire to trounce the tarantella. At Heras-Casado’s speed string articulation inevitably suffered, and when – as so often in this hall – dynamic levels rose and the full orchestra was given its head, the sound simply became raucous. Not that the conductor was insensitive elsewhere – the trio section was nicely contrasted for instance, with a deliciously pointed piccolo solo representing the shepherd’s pipe – but his tendency to rush at fences rarely repaid dividends. The Finale needs to build slowly (the architectural underpinning is there in the score!) so that when the coda finally arrives it can act as a triumphal release. I came away from this performance less invigorated than annoyingly unable to get one of Elvis’ lines out of my head: “I’m all shook up”.

Earlier in the evening there had been something of a fiery Latin partnership between Heras-Casado and his Swiss-Italian soloist, Francesco Piemontesi. The notion prevails in some quarters that Brahms was a dour and humourless individual. In his self-deprecating and ironical way, he described his Op.83 work to his friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg as “a tiny, tiny piano concerto with a tiny, tiny wisp of a scherzo”. Piemontesi clearly had every intention of demonstrating what a big-boned piece this is, stuffed with high-calorie protein and muscular energy. He has the power and technique to do so, and aided by a liberal use of the sustaining pedal frequently produced a huge sound. At times this was certainly thrilling, especially as the scherzo gathered pace, taking the composer’s marking of Appassionato very seriously and unleashing a torrent of notes towards its close. Yet though a young soloist like Piemontesi can take a particular delight in the heroic mode as a default setting, there is a great deal more that this chamber work writ large has to offer. After all, in character it is much closer to a caffè latte than a double espresso.

In a recent interview Piemontesi revealed that the very first recording of this concerto he ever heard was one by Wilhelm Backhaus, who continued to give magisterial performances of it well into his eighties. I would hope that by the time this exceptional young soloist has reached a similar age, he will recognise that there are many playful elements, not least in the final movement with its grazioso marking, and moments of an exquisite diaphanous beauty which benefit from a slightly more relaxed approach. However, unlike some concerto performances where conductor and soloist appear to be pulling in opposing directions, Heras-Casado and Piemontesi were ideally matched. The orchestral support, despite less than reliable horns and rather reticent wind, was equally heroic in vein, rhythmically taut and peppery in flavour, graced in the slow movement by a soulful and long-breathed cello solo from Christopher Franzius.