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A week's concert-going in London
South Bank & Blackheath, February 2008

Shortage of time prompts a blog-like brief round up of some recent concert experiences.

Three piano recitals left contrasting impressions. Barenboim, in one of his long sold-out Beethoven series, vindicated the furore completely.* He brought his rich experience to bear on music he had been playing for sixty years, technically commanding and with palpable emotional involvement; not neglecting Beethoven's sometimes subtle, sometimes quite rough humour. We went to his sonata cycle inaugurating the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the '60s, when the young pianist had the platform lowered for greater intimacy with the audience. A fuller notice will follow the final recital.

A sad contrast next morning at Blackheath Sundays. The famous but inconsistent pianist Nicolai Demidenko filled the Great Hall but seemed out of sorts and unengaged in sonatas by Beethoven and Schumann.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard captivated his audience at QEH with the massive Vingt Regards cycle, which I have come to think is better given in selections rather than in its entirety. In younger days I devoted hundreds of hours at the piano to getting around Messiaen's dense chords and figurations; up to quarter-speed in the faster sections. Encountering them again I found myself alienated from its liturgical overload, repetitiveness and the sameness over a long span of the formulaic chordal constructions, leavened occasionally by the introduction of his signature bird-calls. After no. 6 Par lui tout a été fait I felt an interval was due; after Aimard had thundered his way to the peroration of the Esprit do joie, received with a full-house ovation as might be a marathon runner, I felt that Dix were enough.
[More Messiaen and some improvising at a festival fringe event a few days later; "synesthesia" at RAM, with an abstract painter filmed by Colin Still responding to two agonisingly slowest of Louanges (Peter Sheppard Skaerved and Neil Heyde respectively) from the aptly titled Quartet for the End of Time... Only for dedicated meditators.]

By serendipitous chance the Vingt Regards interval had coincided with the LPO's next door, and I could not resist the opportunity to join the audience in the half empty Royal Festival Hall for Elgar's Symphony No.1. Not a critic in sight for one of the most satisfying accounts of that favourite of mine. Marin Alsop conducted it with her players, not at them in a domineering fashion. Elgar's edwardian pomposity was minimised, the orchestra sounded as an organic whole, breathing together, with no over-assertive spotlighting or point making. This great performance (which was being recorded, for radio or for LPO Live I know not?) will live in my memory, unfortunately not for as long as has Barenboim's 1967 Beethoven cycle...

PGW (Editor)

* Martin Kettle of The Guardian reflected our feelings admirably: - - the prodigious account of the other C major Sonata, Op 2 No 3, which Barenboim played with all the ebullient and pyrotechnical self-confidence that the young Beethoven himself must have brought to it when he launched his career in 1790s Vienna. Op 28 was broad and benign, with Barenboim savouring all the subtle shadings of passages, such as the descending F sharp octaves in the scherzo. But Opus 109, like the magnificently played Appassionata in an earlier recital, was compellingly focused, the rippling legato of the opening and the explosive urgency of the prestissimo second movement leading to the great journey of the final movement.