It’s unfair but tempting to pigeonhole pianists: the intense Mitsuko Uchida; the powerful Martha Argerich; the stately Alicia de Larrocha; and the vivacious Maria João Pires. It’s unlikely I will ever attend a live performance by Argerich, and certainly not de Larrocha, but having seen Mitsuko Uchida a year and a half ago at the Barbican Centre, I was delighted to catch Ms Pires in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s closing concert for the 2012/13 season on Sunday.

Maria João Pires © Felix Broede
Maria João Pires
© Felix Broede

The relationship between the solo part and orchestra in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 is unusual in that they seem to represent two opposing forces – the orchestra as darkness and gloom, and the piano as a silver lining of cheer. Unlike in other concertos, the orchestra does not take up the piano’s opening theme and develop it. This arrangement should have suited Ms Pires down to a T, with her often childlike playfulness in approaching Mozart. Yet Sunday wasn’t her best day. After the brooding and lengthy orchestral introduction, the uncharacteristically timid entry of the piano sounded stiff, and Ms Pires struggled to achieve even phrasing. At one point, it appeared as if she had to help her concentration by visibly mouthing the notes.

By the Romanza second movement, Ms Pires had settled back in her comfort zone, gently coaxing the subtlety from her instrument. The nature of the movement is not overly pensive, and Ms Pires played it just right – tranquil but mildly positive. By the Rondo last movement, she had regained her poise and confidently led the orchestra with a rising ripple. Plenty of delightful banter between soloist and orchestra followed before the movement ended on a jubilant note. It would be churlish to suggest that Ms Pires bungled the performance, but I’ve certainly heard her in better form on record. She seemed reluctant to give an encore, repeatedly inviting the conductor, Yuri Temirkanov, to get off the podium. In the end, we went without one.

Sibelius has insistently refused attribution of nationalistic subtexts to his Symphony no. 2 in D major, but the sheer abundance of contrast and tension is reason enough to savour it. The Philharmonia Orchestra’s performance is a commendable example of superb artistry. Working with sweeping arm movements without a baton, Mr Temirkanov did full justice to Sibelius’ thoughtful orchestration. The delivery was polished, the tone was engaging and the texture was clear. In less capable hands, the finale could have degenerated into a mangle of distractions, but the orchestra held its own, like horses with blinkers careering single-mindedly to the finish.

The Allegretto first movement opens with a deceptively relaxed sauntering progression on strings, picked up by the woodwinds and punctuated by horns. A nervous theme signals a sudden change of mood that builds into a groundswell of anxiety. The anxiety has developed into full-blown anguish as the brass joins in, temporarily soothed into quietude by the return of the opening motif.

Sibelius is said to have sketched the material for the Andante second movement while on holiday in Italy, drawing inspiration from the tale of Don Juan. A short timpani roll and sustained gentle pizzicato lower strings kick off the movement, breaking into a rueful statement on bassoon. As a sweeping lament takes over on strings, the brass joins in to add stridency. After introspective and lugubrious contemplation, the movement draws to a close, the last word being spoken by strings and brass.

The first part of the Vivacissimo third movement is a duel between jerky strings and a lilting oboe lullaby, briefly engaged in a duet with solo cello, that morphs into a sweeping and glorious cantabile on strings supported by syncopated brass in the background. As flutes and clarinets reprise the cantabile, the strings provide a reticent bridge to the finale, which is a triumphant affirmation of hope that mimics the opening theme of the work. As tutti strings soar into luxuriant discourse, the brass marks time with a repetitive pattern underneath. After copious lyrical meandering, the brass seizes victory in a blazing crescendo that draws the work to a close. The intensity of the finale is apparently attributable to the suicide of the composer’s sister-in-law.

Earlier in the evening, the orchestra had given a rousing introduction with the overture from Rossini’s Barber of Seville, a collection of ebullient themes that get passed from instrument to instrument, especially among the woodwinds. I had forgotten how well the acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall accentuate the richness of the strings, and in Rossini on Sunday it was like swallowing molten chocolate.

With the help of Yuri Temirkanov and Maria João Pires, the Philharmonia Orchestra brought their 2012/13 concert season to an end on a high note.

****1