After last week’s very full programme at the Kennedy Center: Concert Hall, it was something of a relief tonight to have but two works to focus on – and what a pair! Brahms' Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor was the weighty work of the evening, balanced out by the most light-filled and uncomplicatedly joyous of Beethoven’s symphonies (the Pastoral) in the second half.

Osmo Vänskä © Kaapo Kamu
Osmo Vänskä
© Kaapo Kamu

Brahms First Piano Concerto, fruit of a long gestation between his 21st and 26th year is a work of partnership between soloist and orchestra, something that wasn’t at all to the taste of its first audience in 1859. Tonight Nikolai Lugansky under the baton of visiting conductor, Osmo Vänskä gave it a fairly decent but undazzling rendition. It was serious of purpose as is only fitting to this weighty Brahmsian concerto, but lacking somewhat in verve, and in the first two movements, one did not come away with the sense that there was an irresistibly compelling dynamic triangulation between soloist, conductor, and orchestra. Lugansky, a gentleman-player in style, did not attack, early on, with romantic ferocity and, as this first movement is nothing if not monumentally tempestuous, I felt rather short-changed, cheated of Sturm und Drang. There was a sort of weightiness, which was good to watch and to listen to at times, hands from on high descending into those powerful chords: technically, there was mastery. 

At other times, that same weight could come off as more ponderous than desirable: cantabiles that never quite sung out, a notey articulation, an accurate but unshowy run up or down the keyboard. The Adagio, over whose ‘spiritual’ content Clara Schumann waxed lyrical, did not begin from a perfectly tranquil place in the orchestra, but it did achieve some stillness, at least, in its course, and there was, in due course, a finer exploration of the restrained register on behalf of both piano and orchestra. By the final Rondo, I felt that all performers were more in their stride, having recourse to more drama of expression and passion and playing, it would seem, with more shared conviction. Finally, we were allowed to experience the Romantic power of the work, something that had been mislaid in the first two movements, more is the pity.

Much more satisfying, overall, was Vänskä’s rendition of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. An energetic presence on the rostrum, he mirrored the constant undulating figuration of this most amiable and most lovely of symphonies in a very sincere way. One came away with the very firm impression that Vänskä truly loves every twist and turn of this delightful symphony, and is familiar with all its fine nuances. As a result, he focused on bringing out the different textures from the orchestra, with a perceptible attention to the details of volume and tone colour. And in a work in which these are used to evoke the glories of the natural world, what more fitting? This paid off particularly handsomely in the voluminous tones in the first movement, in lifting the orchestra to storm-force in the third movement, and in the saturated sounds of content in the Rondo. He gave the impression of complete ambidexterity, his two hands doing impressively different things, eliciting just what was needed from the different desks of the orchestra. Strikingly, in order to bring the strings to the quietude of the murmuring brook in the second movement, he put his hands to his lips as if urging them to kiss the sound. Whether the orchestra did or did not absolutely follow his every nuance (there were a few niggles of rhythm) is not so much an issue, for it largely did, and seemed to draw great musical energy from the partnership. The result was very pleasing. One needs, of course, no reason to be reminded of how much one enjoys Beethoven’s Sixth, but it is still a true pleasure to hear it again, fresh in the hands of someone who knows and love it well. Browning’s celebrated line: “God’s in his Heaven, all’s right with the world” always seems to me to be an entirely apposite one for what Beethoven is doing in this work, and I felt, all was right with this world of sound created this evening in the second half of the performance.

***11