The joy of listening to Brahms’s piano concertos in a concert hall – especially one with such fine acoustics as St David’s Hall, Cardiff – is that textures and harmonies that can sound thick, muddy and ill-balanced in recordings come across with all their intricate, closely-woven contrapuntal writing clear and thrilling. Under the baton of Tadaaki Otaka, formerly the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s principal conductor and now a regular and much-appreciated guest, the partnership with John Lill, one of the world’s most experienced interpreters of Brahms, made for a promising start to this two-item programme. Brahms and Beethoven – and two of their most popular works – it would be hard to go wrong, and they didn’t.

John Lill © Roman Goncharov
John Lill
© Roman Goncharov

John Lill, a tall, imposing figure in tailcoat, huge red hands (mercifully recovered from a savage knife attack by a mugger 14 years ago) protruding from black cuffs like a pair of lobsters about to dance a quadrille on the keyboard, made a striking physical contrast with the tiny, dapper figure of Otaka, who becomes more Yoda-like (in the best possible way – the force is strong in him) as the years go by. However, once Lill was seated at the Steinway, and Otaka had led the orchestra through the hugely long, piano-free opening to Brahms’s Piano Concerto no.1 in D minor, the partnership blossomed, with Otaka’s precise, restrained but energetic gestures keeping the orchestra in step with the pianist’s lucid, passionate interpretation of Brahms’s recitative-like opening phrases. Only a few cracked horn notes marred the orchestral sound, while violas, cellos and bassoons in particular brought out the dense beauty of Brahms’ inner part-writing. It’s all very well to complain, as some contemporary critics did, about Brahms’s “tenor thumb” and the great weight he brings to the alto and tenor voices in his counterpoint, but this is a question a gifted conductor can readily solve with clarity of phrasing and nimble attack. ‘Maestoso’ can be a tempo marking that encourages pomposity and stuffiness (rather like Elgar’s ‘nobilmente’) but that was not the case here, and both Otaka and Lill evoked D minor majesty without dullness or heaviness.

The beauty of Lill’s opening phrases in the D major Adagio had the cellos in the orchestra watching him in what looked like admiration: there is a fascination in the visible interplay between orchestra and soloist which, again, makes a live concert such a special experience. Otaka brought the volume of his muted strings down to a beautifully articulated murmur, a reverend hush that made the hall sound, for a moment, like a cathedral. In complete contrast, the hammered opening theme of the Rondo finale set up a wholly different dialogue with the orchestra, with Lill’s percussive fingering drawing an answering attack in the bowing of the basses and cellos. The Beethovenian structure of this last movement, especially the crisp string fugato section, made an excellent bridge to the Beethoven symphony after the interval.

Fortunately, in a piece that exposes the horns to such a heavy burden of musical responsibility, Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A major found the BBC NOW horns back on form, with a soundness of ensemble that must have pleased Otaka, himself a former horn player. The one weakness was in the intonation of the first oboe, who seemed to have a problem with a couple of notes, especially in scale passages. Aside from this, the performance was a superb confirmation of Otaka’s status as an interpretation of symphonic music, extending beyond Rachmaninov as far as Takemitsu.

The second movement, whose marking Allegretto or ‘a little lively’ has trapped some conductors into taking it at a slow-march pace, came across with the light-footed dancing delicacy that made the ostinato ‘slow, quick, quick, slow, slow’ rhythm endlessly fresh throughout the endless repetitions. The true fortississimo or fff marking which occurs (unusually for Beethoven) in the symphony’s last movement rang round the hall as Otaka brought the piece to its conclusion with the brio it calls for. Rapturous applause from a full house, until Otaka made a ‘time for bed’ gesture with both hands held up to one side of his face, and left the stage.

It is worth pointing out that St David’s Hall is going through a rough patch at the moment. Cardiff City Council has threatened to withhold its previously generous funding, and audience numbers can be unpredictable. Therefore, a full house, even for a programme of predictably-appealing warhorses, is a good sign, and bodes well for the success both of the BBC NOW concert series, and for the forthcoming Welsh Proms.

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