Angelich revives a Beethoven warhorse

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 18.11.2016

The Franco-American pianist Nicholas Angelich delivered a freshly crafted version of a Beethoven warhorse, Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73, together with the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine conducted by Paul Daniel, in the Auditorium of Bordeaux Thursday evening (Nov.17). There was nothing tired and hackneyed about this accomplished performance. It brought the familiar Beethoven strains magically back to life.

Angelich is a trouper of the global concert circuit and his stopover in Bordeaux was an event of some import. His Beethoven was a highlight of the annual “L’Esprit du Piano” festival, ten days of concerts and recitals, with many of the participants of international repute.

Nicholas Angelich, a drawing by Michael Johnson

The audience responded to Angelich’s playing so emotionally that spontaneous applause broke out at the end of the first movement. Caught by surprise, he waited patiently for the clamor to die down.

Angelich went on to the solo passage, a delicate start that he built with his perfectly negotiated arpeggios and trills. Angelich made the concerto his own, notably in dialogue passages that required precise coordination with Daniel’s very polished players. They all seemed at home with each other.

The crowd brought Angelich back for two encores – two of the more tender Chopin mazurkas – with rhythmic clapping and cries of encouragement.

Still under the Beethoven rubrique, the program had opened with a hommage to the great composer but in contemporary dress. “Testament”, Dean Brett’s 2008 collection of short, choppy motifs, seemed beyond this audience. Program notes described the piece as “very true to the Beethoven spirit” but few in the Auditorium were likely to have made that connection. Contemporary music can best be appreciated if one knows in advance how long a piece will last. The program notes helpfully warned this one would go on for 15 minutes.

The program offered another innovation – Beethoven’s incidental music for Egmont, Op. 84, first staged in 1810. This mix of narration, soprano lieder and Beethoven’s full-throated orchestration, was updated to include modern references to oppression, notably Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. The original text played against the backdrop of Goethe’s drama of the same name glorifying a Dutch hero who resisted Napoleonic domination. In this version, narration was provided by Argentinian actor Marcial di Fonzo Bo, and the soprano passages by the very appealing, diminutive French singer Chloé Briot.

The piano festival got off to a bumpy start when another major pianist, Boris Berezovsky, abruptly withdrew on the eve of his date, claiming an unspecified illness. His replacement, the Russian lawyer-pianist Andrei Korobeinikov, stepped in. The heart of Berezovsky’s planned repertoire was picked up by Korobeinikov, the monumental Hammerklavier, but his interpretation left some puzzled. His very personal choices of tempi were erratic although his technical prowess remained impressive. And yet he seemed overmatched in his efforts to convey the depths of this work.

His adagio sostenuto, one of the most captivating passes in the romantic repertoire, was played so slowly it lost all integrity.  The late British musicologist Donald Tovey has noted that slowing down this movement is always a temptation for pianists. “This must be resisted,” Tovey wrote, for slower tempi will mean that “the movement becomes unintelligible”. Some in the audience would nod their agreement. By the end, Korobeinikov had stretched the sonata to almost 60 minutes, about 15 minutes beyond the average playing time.

 


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