The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s second concert of the season, pairing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major with Bruckner’s Symphony no. 4 in E flat major was not, on paper, the most revelatory of programmes – its argument for the linking theme of compositional confidence seemed a tenuous connection on which to base a concert – but in practice, the two pieces worked well together.

Vladimir Jurowski © Roman Gontcharov
Vladimir Jurowski
© Roman Gontcharov

The First is, as is often pointed out, actually Beethoven's third attempt at a piano concerto and having finally reached a point of satisfaction, he thought it a fitting piece to mark as his official entry into the genre. This concert’s soloist was Valery Afanassiev, whose rather intimidating biography in the accompanying booklet has a whole list of non piano-related accomplishments including “thirty-nine novels... sixteen books of poetry... a commentary on Dante’s Commedia” – a CV impressive enough to cause immediate inferiority complexes.

Vladimir Jurowski took the opening of the Allegro at a stately pace, achieving a grandeur of sound that sounded more imperial than polite. The sound from the strings was less agile and more expansive, the brass even in tone – the effect was almost ceremonial in form. Afanassiev’s initial approach after the long orchestral introduction was, for me, too aggressive. The violence of his playing was an ugly contrast to the refined playing from the orchestra. It slightly softened eventually, but remained thunderous throughout the movement, and in tone itself there seemed to be a century’s difference between the broad early 19th-century feel of the orchestra and Afanassiev. This was not aided by Afanassiev’s technically brilliant but anachronistic cadenza. The Largo had a slightly more comfortable dynamic; Afanassiev’s touch was softer and blended more amiably with graceful playing from the strings, though it felt almost lethargic after the blistering first movement. Afanassiev dived into the Rondo and gave a firecracker of a third movement, skipping along the keys with joyous abandon. The orchestra too seemed to be more in synchronisation with the piano, working with it rather than under it. Afanassiev encored with Mozart’s Fantasia in D minor, K397, movingly dedicated to his great teacher Emil Gilels, delivered with poignancy and a delicacy of touch. Ironically, this made more of an impact that the Beethoven.

The Fourth is supposed to be Bruckner at his most symphonically confident, despite the fact that he went on to revise it several times. Jurowski chose to perform the original, and much less common, version of 1874, which was never actually given in Bruckner’s lifetime. The biggest difference lies in the Scherzo; in the revisions, Bruckner completely overhauled what, on one level, is simply a horn call with response from orchestra ad nauseam and replaced it with the famous “Hunt” Scherzo. In hearing the original at this concert, one wholeheartedly agrees with the revision, despite the quality of horn playing from John Ryan, obviously striving to make each call individually interesting.

Generally though, this was a superb reading from Jurowski and I was struck by the clarity that he succeeded in bringing to the piece. Everything was clearly delineated and a careful balance was maintained that avoided overdominance from the brass; this had the particular benefit of allowing the woodwind to stand out and in this regard, principal flautist Juliette Bausor deserves credit for an untiring performance; sweetly rising over her colleagues, notes full and perky, her playing unlocked a dimension to the symphony which isn’t often audible. Jurowski’s account avoided lethargy and muscular swagger in favour of crisp, energetic tempi; strings were generally nimble, though the cellos were allowed some sinfully indulgent moments in the Andante, chocolatey dark in texture. The performance was a reminder of just how good Jurowski and the LPO are at Bruckner – but please let’s avoid this version if possible.

***11