An added poignancy to Howard Hodgkin’s ‘Absent Friends’

Howard Hodgkin: Absent Friends – National Portrait Gallery, London

The title of the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition of portraits by British artist Howard Hodgkin has an added poignancy: called ‘Absent Friends’, the show opens just two weeks after the artist died at the age of 84, and thus Hodgkin himself is an absent friend to this exhibition, with which he was very much involved in the planning. It’s the first ever exhibition of Hodgkin’s portraits and contains over 50 works from around the world, dating from 1949 to the present, including a recently completed self-portrait by the late artist together  early drawings from Hodgkin’s private collection, made while he was studying at Bath Academy of Art in the 1950s, and exhibited for the first time.

Howard Hodgkin has never quite attained the same status nor acclaim in the contemporary British art world as David Hockney or Lucien Freud, yet for me his work seems far superior to the former artist’s later creations, in particular in its execution, imagination and refinement. Compare Hodgkin’s sprezzatura brushstrokes, vibrant dots and exuberant joie de vivre with the clumsy faux-pointillism and migraine-inducing colours of Hockney’s most recent landscapes, currently on display in a retrospective of his work at Tate Britain, and Hodgkin wins hands down in my book.

There aren’t many faces in this exhibition and initially one may find it strange to encounter so many obviously abstract works in an exhibition billed as portraiture. But for Hodgkin, portraits were not about figurative representations of people – friends, lovers, colleagues – but rather the private realm of experience that connects one more intimately with the world and its inhabitants. “I am a representational painter, but not a painter of appearances.” said Hodgkin of his work, “I paint representational pictures of emotional situations.” Hodgkin’s portraits move far beyond literal appearance and instead represent more subjective aspects – memory, experience, emotion and expression associated with the person. Rather like Elgar’s portrayal of friends in his ‘Enigma Variations’, Hodgkin drew on his accumulated experiences and the paintings became the physical equivalent of the artist’s experience and feelings: “they should be like memorials“. These works are highly personal and often intangible, created with wit, warmth and intimacy, whose colours, shapes and brushstrokes express the artist’s evocation of specific individuals in particular situations.

The early works from the late 1940s and 50s are far from abstract. These are purely figurative works, but Hodgkin’s interest in colour is evident from the outset. The drawings, on display for the first time, demonstrates key characteristics of Hodgkin’s approach which continued throughout his career. In all three works, including a drawing of his landlady ‘Miss Spackamn’, he evokes the appearance of the sitters very precisely, with confident pencil marks, yet they are based entirely on memory, a factor central to Hodgkin’s work, and reveal his remarkable powers of recall. Two Women at a Table explores the physical relationship between the two sitters, with the underlying theme of the intimacy of their situation. The works from the late 1950s are also the result of recollected images: their subjects are recognisable, but the artist’s expressivity is used to recapture his “original feeling” of recalled experiences with and about that person. In the 1960s, the art critic Edward Lucie-Smith described Hodgkin as “the nearest thing to a classical artist at present working in England” and for Hodgkin the notion of “classical art” was connected with “making art out of feelings”. This psychological dimension – picturing reality as he felt it rather than as he saw it, going into the mind and painting consciousness instead of reality – would assume greater prominence in his later work. The works from the 1960s are witty and affectionate, highlighting aspects unique to their subjects’ lives and work: for example, ‘The Tilsons’ (1965-7) portrays the British Pop artist Joe Tilson, whose handmade, constructed work reflects his background in carpentry. Hodgkin uses bold colour and repeated geometric shapes which recall Pop Art’s appropriation of techniques from advertising and commercial design. Meanwhile in ‘Mr and Mrs Robin Denny’ (1960), a double portrait of the painter Robyn Denny (1930-2014) and his wife Anna, Hodgkin’s bold brushwork and vibrant colours may be an affectionate riposte to Denny’s geometric compositions and restrained palette.

Mr & Mrs Robyn Denny (1960)

©Howard Hodgkin

From the 1970s, Hodgkin’s work moved further into the realms of abstraction, and while these paintings may appear to have been created in a matter of hours or a few days, they are the result of much painstaking work and revisions over many years. Yet they vibrate with an irresistible spontaneity and vibrancy. These are the paintings I remember from childhood visits to art exhibitions with my mother (also an artist and art historian). I was fascinated by Hodgkin’s habit of painting right across the frames of his works, something which seemed highly subversive in a tradition concerned with edges and defined limits. And so just as he challenged the received notion of what constitutes a portrait, he also made a statement about how we define “a painting”.

Going For A Walk With Andrew (1995-98), Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

It is these later works which really sing from the walls – simple in composition with broad bands of colours, dappled surfaces, jewel-like colours – they feel fresh, newly-created and replete with a zest for life. The final room displays Hodgkin’s last major painting, Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music, completed in late 2016 with the National Portrait Gallery exhibition in mind. This large oil on wood painting, (1860mm x 2630mm) evokes a deeply personal situation: the act of remembering memorialised in paint. While Hodgkin worked on it, recordings of two pieces of music were played continuously: ‘The Last Time I Saw Paris’ composed by Jerome Kern (a song about looking back and reliving the past), and the zither music from the film The Third Man. Both pieces were favourites of the artist and closely connected to earlier times in his life that the experience of listening recalled. Surrounded by a hefty frame, which does not contain the picture but rather allows it to extend, its colours and broad gestures invite one to step into it, to explore it further. The colours are more muted than in the other paintings which precede it, but its celebration of the experience of being alive vibrates across the work. This is a work of genuine emotion and integrity.

Paul Moorhouse, the exhibition’s curator says of this picture: “When we look at this painting it’s got such a highly-charged, emotional message which is rather different from the more celebratory pictures elsewhere in the exhibition. To me, it’s a deeply-moving painting and I think it is a painting in which Howard was confronting what he saw approaching. I think he knew.

Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music (2016)

The exhibition begins with Hodgkin’s earliest portrait, and the story ends with this final work. What is in no doubt is that this exhibition is a wonderful tribute to and celebration of one of Britain greatest artists.

FW (reviewed 22 March 2017)

23 March -18 June 2017, at the National Portrait Gallery, London

‘Partenope’ at English National Opera

English National Opera’s 2016/17 season closes with a welcome revival of Christopher Arden’s Olivier Award-winning 2008 production of George Frederick Handel’s Partenope, first staged in 1730.

The plot, daft even by Baroque comic opera standards, revolves around the mythical Partelope, Queen of Naples, and her multiple suitors. Silvio Stampiglia’s libretto, awash with sexual intrigue, cross-dressing, braggadocio and pathos, is agreeably frivolous fare.

Arden has recast Partenope as a Nancy Cunard-style hostess and transferred the setting to a 1920s weekend house party, where the greatest risk to the assembled Bohemians is getting stuck in the downstairs lavatory. The decision to model one of the suitors, Emilio, on photographer Man Ray adds a Surrealist touch. Andrew Lieberman’s Art Deco sets and Jon Morrell’s costumes are evocative, and Amanda Holden’s peppy translation suits the louche atmosphere well.

ENO Partenope Sarah Tynan, James Laing and Patricia Bardon (c) Donald Cooper-L

Soprano Sarah Tynan, all marcelled chic and crisp delivery, excels in her role debut as Partenope. Outstanding, too, is the rich mezzo of Patricia Bardon, in the primo uomo part of Arsace. Countertenor James Laing is engaging as silly ass Armindo, and there’s strong support from Stephanie Windsor Lewis (as Arsace’s jilted lover Rosmira) and Matthew Durkan (as the foppish Ormonte). Rupert Charlesworth, replacing Robert Murray at short notice, contributes a turbo-charged performance as the interloping Emilio. Noted Handelian Christian Curnyn, who also conducted the original production, marshals the ENO orchestra with brio.

ENO Partenope Rupert Charlesworth and Sarah Tynan (4) (c) Donald Cooper-XL

It’s been bruited in some quarters that Partenope is subpar Handel, deserving to be pushed to the back of the repertoire. That’s nonsense: it fairly bursts at the seams with unalloyed da capo bliss. (If you doubt me, sample Riccardo Minasi’s excellent 2015 recording, which at the time of writing was available here).

Partenope continues the glorious series of Handel revivals at the Coliseum that began with Nicholas Hynter’s near-legendary Xerxes, now over 30 years old. ENO should follow it up by dusting off Agrippina, Rodelinda, Ariodante, Alicina and Semele – the lot. And if the payoff is a run of semi-staged adaptations of ‘Carousel’ with Katherine Jenkins and Alfie Boe, then I, for one, say: Bring it on!


Partenope at ENO to 24th March 2017

All photographs: Donald Cooper

Maurizio Pollini proves he still has the hunger

Whenever Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini comes to London there are the gainsayers who declare that he is now “past it”, that his technique is “not what it once was” (he’s in his 70s, so we can’t really expect the nimble fleet-fingers of a man half his age!). But go to one of his concerts and you’ll discover why people still flock to hear him and why he commands enthusiastic applause and standing ovations for his clarity, commitment and musical intent. He’s a virtuoso in the old-fashioned sense of the word – modest (he allows the music to speak for itself), adventurous (in his programmes), noble and generous.

For his second programme at the Royal Festival Hall to mark his 75th birthday this year he performed works by two composers with whom he has a special affinity – Schoenberg and Beethoven. Two composers poised on the cusp of change, separated by a century, whose music was, in its own way, adventurous, revolutionary, forward-looking and distinctive. Not many people can pair Schoenberg with Beethoven to create a convincing whole, but Pollini can, and this performance showed why, at 75, he is still a master of the piano. He scurries across the stage, bird-like, bent forward, and gives the briefest of bows to the audience, as if he can’t wait to get on with the performance. And once he begins to play his quiet body language, free of unnecessary gestures or fussy mannerisms, focuses one’s attention entirely on the music, not the man. Which is how it should be.

Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces, Op 11 were composed 100 years after Beethoven’s Op.78, and these works opened the concert. It is a great skill by any performer to open with miniatures such as these – intimate and softly-spoken, they are some of Schoenberg’s most personal works, along with the Six Little Piano Pieces, Op 19 which followed them.   Despite a noisy infant in the corridor and much bronchial throat-clearing in the stalls, Pollini seemed impervious to these interruptions and played with concentrated focus. His bespoke Fabbrini Steinway has a bright, clean tone which suited this repertoire, and he highlighted the music’s intensity, its fleeting writing, the hints of tonality and ambiguous emotional landscapes. The Six Little Piano Pieces, Op.19, are even smaller in scale, aphoristic and emotionally charged (in particular the final work, written shortly after the death of Gustav Mahler), to which Pollini brought clarity, intimacy, wit and poignancy. Rather than focus on the cerebral nature of this music, as some performers tend to, Pollini revealed the piquant harmonies and shifting colours in these works. This is not the easiest of music, for the listener, with which to open a concert programme, but Pollini’s ability to draw the audience into Schoenberg’s unsettling soundworld was convincing and compelling.

The Pathétique Sonata, one of Beethoven’s most popular, felt rather unsteady. There’s no doubting Pollini’s technical assuredness: at 75 he is still nimble and agile across the entire range of the keyboard, but the first movement seemed rushed, though it did not lack dramatic bite, and there were a number of muddy passages. The songful slow movement felt rather four-square and I craved more cantabile in that long-spun melody. The finale was a breathless gallop, not always secure, but audacious and sincere nonetheless.

Between the turbulent edifices of the Pathétique and the Appassionata came the modest two-movement Op.78, A Thérèse, which combined lyricism with intimacy and to which Pollini brought grace and charm, particularly in the first movement.

The haunting opening measures of the Appassionata recalled the Schoenberg in their concentrated intensity before the music broke free into a movement of fearless drama. Now Pollini took the music by the scruff of the neck: no uncertainty here, he tore through the movement with a taut single-mindedness, creating a movement of tension, power and savage momentum. The passagework glittered, trills had a fleeting elegance, and a sense of the overall narrative was clear throughout. The stately second movement, a theme and four variations built on a simple chordal motif, grew in statue as the note values got progressively smaller, a favourite device of Beethoven to create a sense of increased momentum. Pollini handled it with nobility and grace, his weighty style in keeping with the sonorous character of this music. The transition into the finale was masterful – control before the storm – before a tumultuous eruption sound and energy. A febrile, urgent moto perpetuo of edge-of-the seat excitement and drama. That movement alone was enough to convince that Pollini still has the hunger: assured technique underpinning a clear sense of the music’s narrative, its drama and contrasts. To quote a fellow Twitterer who attended the concert, “note-perfect upstarts take note” – which I take to mean perfection is not a prerequisite when one hears such clarity of vision and musical intent.

Two Bagatelles from the Op 126 formed the encores – the first an ethereal chorale, like the first movement of the Op 110 in miniature, Beethoven at his most philosophical and refined.



America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s

The big draw at the Royal Academy’s new show is the iconic painting “American Gothic” by Grant Wood. It’s one of the most recognizable images in American art: a stern-looking father and daughter pair – actually posed by Wood’s sister Nan and his dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby – stand in front of their Carpenter Gothic house. Completed in 1930, the painting was acquired soon after by the Art Institute of Chicago, which has generously loaned it for this travelling exhibition, coming to London from the Musée de l’Orangerie  in Paris.

No other painting in the history of art, except perhaps Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, has been so endlessly parodied. It’s safe to assume that Wood, reportedly a man of fastidious tastes, would be appalled that his most famous work has since been used to sell products as diverse as cleaning fluids, video games and beer. But wasn’t “American Gothic” always intended to be tongue-in-cheek? In fact, Wood denied that he was poking fun at Midwestern folksiness, although another painting by him here, “Daughters of Revolution”, showing three “Tory gals” standing in front of “Washington Crossing the Delaware”, is more obviously satirical. Poor old Wood. Compare the fortunes of “American Gothic” to that of another memorable image of the Depression years, Dorothea Lange’s photograph of a destitute pea-picker and her children, “Migrant Mother”: nobody would ever dream of parodying that.

This exhibition charts the course of American painting during the unsettled period after the financial crash of 1929. Many works of art – indeed, many of the artists – in the show will be new to British art fans. Of course, we all know Edward Hopper, who’s represented by two works, “New York Movie” and a painting that for some reason always makes me shudder, “Gas”. There’s Georgia O’Keefe, too, the subject of a big show at Tate Modern only last year. Other artists, though, including such fine talents as Thomas Hart Benton, Alice Neel and my personal favourite here, the creepy Magic Realist painter Ivan Albright, will be much less familiar.

What becomes apparent is the sheer diversity of American art in this period. Inevitably, a lot of space is devoted to “American Scene” or Regionalist painting by Wood, Benton and lesser lights such as John Steuart Curry. Other artists like Stuart Davis and Reginald Marsh, meanwhile, chronicled the urban experience, while Charles Demuth immortalised the industrial landscape in his Precisionist “River Rouge Plant”. Peter Blume’s “Eternal City” attempts, not entirely successfully, to re-work European Surrealism in an American idiom, while “The Fleet’s In!” by Paul Cadmus is pure camp. There’s much that’s overtly political, such as Joe Jones’ “American Justice”, which depicts the grim aftermath of a lynching. Social Realism takes centre stage, but there’s also a fair amount of abstraction and even, as in Charles Green Shaw’s pack of Wrigley’s Spearmint hovering above the Manhattan skyline, stuff that seems to anticipate Pop.

My only criticism of the show, staged upstairs in the Sackler Wing, is that it’s rather small – just 45 works by thirty-odd artists – making it feel at times rather like a whistle-stop tour of a huge subject. But I suppose this is understandable, given the risks involved in staging a show featuring so many little-known, albeit intriguing, artists.

“America after the Fall” serves as a sort of coda to the Royal Academy’s recent, well-received blockbuster on Abstract Expressionism. There’s even some overlap at the end, with early works by future “AbEx” artists such Jackson Pollock and Philip Guston. You’re reminded of how much was later swept away in the anxiety to create a truly American art form, so much so that in 1954 the critic Clement Greenberg could write that “abstraction is the major mode of expression in our time; any other mode is necessarily minor”. Not that the Realists gave in without a fight: Wood died aged only 51 in 1942, but Hopper and, in particular, Benton would later stage a vigorous defence of traditional painting. Nowadays, of course, it’s “AbEx” that looks old hat, and in recent years, words like “figuration”, “realism” and even “life model class” have once again become acceptable terms in contemporary art.

America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s, Royal Academy Of Arts, 25 February-4 June 2017

Virtuosic concert pieces & elegant miniatures: Henselt piano works

If you didn’t know the name of the composer beforehand – and many may not – the opening notes of the first track might have you confidently exclaiming “oh it’s Chopin!” (indeed, Schumann dubbed this composer “the Chopin of the North”). There’s the same ominous tread in the opening as Chopin’s Op 49 Fantasie. And then you might think “it’s Liszt!” on hearing the tumbling virtuosic passages which sparkle under the lightness and precision of Daniel Grimwood’s touch. Other works recall the bittersweet lyricism of Schubert or look forward to the richer textures of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. But this is Adolph Von Henselt, a little known Bavarian-born composer whom Grimwood champions.

Born in 1814, just four years behind Fryderyk Chopin, Adolph von Henselt, music history has unfairly consigned Henselt to the status of an “also-ran”, the poor relation to Chopin and Liszt. Unable to make his name or a living in Germany, Henselt went to teach in St Petersburg, where his influence on Russian pianism was considerable: he taught Zverev, Rachmaninov’s teacher. His music is played more in Russia than anywhere else: I hadn’t heard of him until I became friends with Daniel Grimwood, and when I listened to his music, I wondered why his music has been sidelined for so long.

Organised in the manner of an old-fashioned recital disc, there is much to savour and enjoy in the variety of works explored here. Virtuosic concert pieces sit comfortably alongside elegant miniatures, offering the listener a broad flavour of Henselt’s style and oeuvre. The Nocturnes, Impromptus and Études prove Henselt was every bit a master of these genres as his contemporaries Chopin and Liszt – and he made similar technical and interpretative demands on the pianist too. There are passages of vertiginous virtuosity which appear sweeping and effortless rather than merely showy with Daniel’s acute sense of the scale and pacing of this music. It’s lushly expressive but Daniel’s clarity and delicacy means it is never cloying or too heavily perfumed.

This disc would go into my “lateral listening” recommendations: if you love Chopin, I guarantee you’ll love Henselt just as much.

This is the second of Daniel’s recordings for the Edition Peters label and it has delightful cover artwork by Janet Lynch and comprehensive liner notes. As Daniel himself says of this disc: “It’s my small way of restoring Henselt… his rightful place in the repertoire

Highly recommended

An opera for our troubled times: ‘The Winter’s Tale’ at ENO

How to turn one of Shakespeare’s late “problem plays” into an opera? It’s something which has preoccupied conductor and composer Ryan Wigglesworth since his student days. Now 37, his ruminations have come to fruition in this commission for English National opera (ENO) and in The Winter’s Tale, he has produced an opera for our troubled times – tense, unsettling and eloquently-scored.

Wigglesworth admits that while he’s never seen a convincing stage version of The Winter’s Tale, the material is ripe for operatic adaptation, not only its powerful central theme – a king looking back repentantly over his past – but also the set pieces of dramatic crisis: the trial, the storm, the passing of the years. In Wigglesworth’s version, plot and text are stripped right back – an adaptation into another art form almost begs a radical appraisal of what is essential to the narrative – and Wigglesworth’s concision means one never feels overloaded with music. In fact, one of the most striking features of this opera, amongst many others, is the way text and music dovetail to create a condensed dramatic whole which vibrates with intensity. Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter does not lend itself easily to song (it’s too long to be sung intelligibly), so Wigglesworth, who also wrote the libretto, has created a text which has a keen sense of the poetry of Shakespeare, artful but never simplistic, set to music which is mercurial, lyrical and deeply atmospheric with its tender washes of strings, haunting clarinet lines, anxious flutter-tongued flute, portentous growling basses and trombones, and edgy xylophone and snare drum to match Leontes’ agitation and suspicion about his queen. A Britten-like melancholy and tautness suffuses the score.

It is the “fake news” in Leontes’ head which drives the narrative in the first act. He suspects his wife Hermione is having an affair with Polixenes, King of Bohemia, but unlike Othello, who is convinced by Iago’s weasel words, Leontes believes his own propaganda and every touch, every incline of the head between Hermione and Polixenes feeds his fears. Baritone Iain Paterson portrays a King of Sicilia who is both powerful yet vulnerable. At times his voice almost creaks with emotion, his broad-shoulders clad in a boxy uniform seem poised on the cusp of collapse. In the opening sequence he parades and preens, self-admiring and proud, his body language redolent of a more contemporary leader who favours over-sized suits and self-aggrandisement….. The contrast between this and the broken, repentant man we meet in Act 3 is stark and poignantly drawn.

His queen Hermione, elegantly sung by Sophie Bevan, is gently flirtatious but never openly coquettish with Polixenes. When she begs him to stay in Sicilia, it is the pleading of a friend not a lover. Polixenes, sharply sung by Leigh Melrose, takes heed of servant Camillo’s advice and flees Sicilia before the trial.

The trial is the dramatic heart of Act 1 and is the first opportunity for the ENO’s fine chorus to come to the fore as the crowd who act like a Greek chorus, chanting their support for Hermione and calling upon the god Apollo. The revolving, circular set is used to great dramatic effect here, cleaving into jagged parts which then form a seascape for baby Perdita’s storm-tossed journey to Bohemia. In Act 3 the fractured walls reflect the King’s emotional scars.

The action moves forward apace in Act 1, yet the claustrophobic intensity of the narrative, the spare language and unsettling, haunting scoring create a sense of time elongated.

Act 2 opens in sunny Bohemia, a place of honey-stoned buildings and cheerful pavement cafés. This is where Perdita, Leontes’ daughter, has made her home, adopted by a kindly shepherd and in love with Florizel, son of Polixenes. But suspicious stalks the streets here too: camouflaged soldiers prod and provoke the crowd, and Polixenes appears in battle fatigues and dark glasses, like the military dictator of a South American republic. The joyful, folksy celebration of Perdita and Florizel’s love cannot last long and the couple are forced to flee to Sicilia, pursued by Polixenes.

The final Act, the scene of recognition and reconciliation between Leontes and his daughter ends not with a neat tying up of ends as one normally finds in theatrical productions of this play. A sense of ambiguity, of incompleteness pervades, and Leontes’ final soliloquy “Stars, stars, all eyes else dead coals!” is a moment of raw emotion.

Acclaimed actor Rory Kinnear, who makes his directorial debut, has set the narrative in a modern-day military state, replete with oversized state statues, sharply fitted uniforms heavy with medals and gold-frogging, and fearful obsequious servants – excepting the queen’s stalwart supporter Paulina, magnificently sung by Susan Bickley. The set’s concentric circular walls work well in informing and moving forward the narrative and create a sense of “us looking in on them”, as almost voyeuristic observers of the action.

There may be trouble at the top at ENO, but down on the stage great things are happening and this production of The Winter’s Tale further confirms that.



The Winter’s Tale continues in repertory at ENO/London Coliseum until 14 March 2017

(Photo: Sophie Bevan, Zach Roberts and Iain Paterson in ENO’s ‘The Winter’s Tale’. Picture by Johan Persson)

Master meets Master – head on: Murray Perahia plays Beethoven

I wasn’t expecting to be at a concert on Monday evening, but a chance offer of a ticket to hear Murray Perahia playing my favourite Beethoven Piano Concerto led to a most enjoyable and uplifting evening at the Barbican in the company of piano friends and fine musicians.

It’s hard to believe that Murray Perahia is 70 this year. I’ve admired his playing since I was a teenager and he was fresh off the international competition circuit. His playing is consistently excellent, and while he may not display the flamboyance of others in the profession, his performances are always absorbing, refined and thoughtfully presented. I also admire his insistence on sticking with the core repertoire that suits him – the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and Brahms, with Bach his central focus (and if you want a good case for Bach played on the modern piano, seek out Perahia’s recordings).

“Serious” is a description  I would immediately apply to Perahia’s approach. His stage manner is rather peremptory – a brief nod to acknowledge the audience and straight to the piano to get on with the main business of the evening. But Monday’s concert was suffused with joy and wit, Perahia directing the wonderful Academy of St Martin in the Fields (ASMF) from the keyboard in a performance which was vibrant and uplifting. And sitting just three rows from the stage gave us a fascinating view of the keyboard (it’s what piano geeks always crave at concerts – a clear view of the pianist’s hands at work!).

The concert opened with Beethoven’s Coriolan overture, ferociously articulated, energetic and boldly dramatic. When I went to concerts as a child, most began with a dramatic overture, a hook to engage the audience’s attention and prime them for the main event, but lately such performances seem to be regarded as rather passé. A pity, as in this instance, Coriolan proved an ideal opener, and the vibrant energy and precision of ASMF became a hallmark of the event. When Perahia joined them for the Piano Concerto No. 2, a special synergy between orchestra and soloist was evident from the outset, with much witty dialogue and gracious cooperation, mercurial shifts of mood, and colourful voicings. The piano gleamed and rippled, neatly dovetailing with the orchestra – no sense of “us and him” which is sometimes evident in concerto performances. The slow movement was a study in long-breathed phrases, the perfect foil for the boisterous, gamboling finale to which orchestra and soloist brought impish humour and vigour.

In the fourth Concerto, composed some ten years after the second, we find a more mature Beethoven, but ever the radical. The opening of this concerto is astonishing: for almost a century before, concertos had always begun with an orchestral introduction. Beethoven breaks with tradition and gives the piano a five-bar introduction, an opening phrase, eloquently articulated by Perahia, which is left hanging and is immediately answered by the orchestra alone. This set up a very special relationship between orchestra and piano, already well-established in the previous concerto, which seemed to reach its apogee in this work. There’s an impatience in this concerto (as there is in many of Beethoven’s “middle period” works), as if Beethoven has much to say and not enough time to say it, portrayed in sections of pure weirdness and unpredictability. Perahia and the ASMF responded to this with brisk tempi and a ruggedness of approach (no long-spun Mozartian arias here) which reflected the forward-pull of Beethoven’s revolutionary vision. Soloist and orchestra were compelling and commanding: there was no time for introspective soul-searching here – except perhaps in the middle movement, where the ominous tread of the orchestra’s opening motif was offset by a controlled recitative from the piano. The orchestra were wild and angry, the piano offered a hymn in response. Cool and thoughtful rather than soothing, Perahia managed the transition into the finale with elegant restraint. The rousing Rondo, with its wonderful, memorable theme, prickled with energy. The solidity and simplicity of the classical ideal, evident in the architecture that underpins this glorious movement, is offset against Beethoven’s dramatic innovation: here is a composer poised on the cusp of change. Vital and emphatic, Perahia and AMSF responded to this with excitement, wit and joy.


(concert date: Monday 20th February 2017)

(photo: The Telegraph)