The Hamburg Symphony under the experienced, cultured baton of Sylvain Cambreling, greatly impressed in an upbeat concert of Ravel and Beethoven in the Laeiszhalle. The concert was enormously enhanced by the presence of legendary pianist, Martha Argerich, whose performance of the Ravel G major concerto had all the magic that one has grown to expect from her over the decades of her career.

Martha Argerich and Sylvain Cambrelin in rehearsal with the Hamburg Symphony
© Daniel Dittus

The Ravel is in many ways an ideal showcase for her prodigious talents. It requires a heady mix of sensuality, delicacy, evenness of fingerwork in the fast passage and a certain fierceness of temperament, all of which Argerich possesses in spades. What she also brought to the table, was a keen chamber musicians’ ear for the interplay between the instruments, so important in this work. 

The opening movement was unrushed, but nonetheless exciting and quixotic. Argerich was particularly generous of spirit and rubato in the beautiful slow second subject. This generosity continued into the exquisite slow movement, its rarefied world evidently, from the rapt expression on her face, relished by Argerich. In its unhurried unfolding it demonstrated the wisdom and musicality of her gift as it is now and was a very touching moment of calm and beauty. Particular mention must go to the cor anglais player who, with Argerich gently encouraging in the wings, played the repeat of the main theme as beautifully as I have heard before. The fireworks in the Finale were all there, with orchestra and soloist thoroughly enjoying the high jinks. A performance to savour and remember as a beacon of light and hope in these dark times. 

Ravel kicked off the evening too with Le Tombeau de Couperin, a work written during the First World War as a solo piano suite and then orchestrated in 1919 as a memorial to his mother who had died in 1917 and to friends who had died in the war. Its tone is surprisingly chirpy and idyllic, which Ravel, when questioned about this replied, “the dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence”. 

Martha Argerich, Sylvain Cambreling and the Hamburg Symphony in the Laeiszhalle
© Daniel Dittus

The Hamburg woodwinds shone very brightly in this performance, making the tricky and counterintuitive writing, particularly for the oboe, sound effortless and characterful. Cambreling's tempi throughout were steady, allowing the detail of the scoring to register clearly. The opening Prelude is a case in point with every decorative melodic element was allowed to unravel with ease and coalesce into a satisfying climax near the end. The insouciant Forlane was permitted to dance and was not overlaid with a meaning that it is clearly eschewing. The Rigaudon finale was again taken at a slowish pace, which emphasised its origins in dance. 

The Symphony no. 8 in F major was once the most underrated of the Beethoven canon, seen as a dropping off of greatness between the dynamic Seventh and the grandiose Ninth, but as time has passed the general opinion has shifted to it being a work of defiance. In this symphony Beethoven is challenging expectations of him as a barnstorming composer, as well confronting the norms of sonata and symphonic form. However, putting all this aside, it is a work of pure charm and good humour which resonates at a time when this in short supply. 

Cambreling conducted a performance which almost wilfully avoided searching for hidden depths. As in the Ravel he allowed the music to speak through clarity of textures and rhythm, always at a tempo that seemed natural and never pushed. Again, the woodwinds surpassed themselves, supported by a very well-integrated brass section and balanced ideally with the string section. 

This performance was reviewed from the Elbphilharmonie video stream