Review: Auckland Philharmonia “The Emperor Meets Brahms” – 15 May 2014

After some time away, it was good to get back to the Auckland Town Hall. Thursday’s Auckland Philharmonia concert was a return to the popular repertoire with Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture and Fourth Symphony paired with Beethoven’s “Emperor” piano concerto. It also helped that the soloist was one of the drawcards of the APO’s 2014 season.

Young Uzbek pianist Bezhod Abduraimov is one of the most sought-after artists of his generation having won the 2009 London International Piano Competition in sensational fashion when he was only 18.  Critics have used up much of the letter “E” in the dictionary to describe his playing calling it exceptional, enthralling, energetic, expressive and even electric. Since then, he has been here, there and everywhere giving recitals and performing with some of the world’s best orchestras and conductors including the Mariinsky Orchestra with Valery Gergiev, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London.  Indeed, immediately before his APO concert, he was with the Boston Symphony in a series of concerts in the States and as part of that orchestra’s tour of China.

In stature and in some mannerisms, he reminds me of a young Vladimir Ashkenazy – the same hunched shoulders at times, the same arm movements and most importantly the same attention to dynamic detail that cemented Ashkenazy’s reputation as a great pianist and musician.

Unfortunately, we did not get to see and hear the best that Abduraimov had to offer. I hasten to add that it was not his fault. Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto is a work that a soloist can get stuck into and make their own and that he did where he could. But the message did not seem to have got through to conductor Pablo Gonzalez. For some inexplicable reason, the first movement was taken a tad too fast and without the attention to detail to allow the soloist dramatic touches to emphasise the grandeur of the music. That resulted in the soloist having to keep up with the orchestra rather than the other way around. The same problem occurred in the second movement as well and the sensitivity so evident in Beethoven’s writing in this movement was well and truly lost. Normal service was resumed to a point in the dramatic final movement but here again, it was not without some discomfort and it would be understandable if you thought the overall performance was disappointing.

In fact, a lot of credit is due to the young man as a less technically secure soloist might not have been able to meet the challenge. He certainly tried to make the point at times by slowing things down but it seemed to no avail and this was a great shame. A pity too that he offered no encore. Something different to show his remarkable talents to the expectant Auckland audience might have been a good thing. Hopefully, the APO will get him back in the near future.

Had I heard the concert on the radio, I might well have thought that there was something wrong between conductor and soloist. Seeing the performance in the concert hall, and the interactions, or rather lack of them, it was quite clear where the problem lay. It wasn’t with the soloist or, for that matter, the orchestra.

Perhaps I should have taken the warning signs from Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture which started the concert. Maestro Gonzalez’s conducting style is somewhat economical, at times Kleiber-ish. A good thing if what you desire to show are the broad, sweeping thematic lines. Not so good, in my personal opinion, if you are looking in detail at a piece.

Festive though the performance was, it seemed to lack something at its core. There is film of the legendary George Szell rehearsing this piece with the Cleveland Orchestra and in it he asks for sarcasm at various points. It was that sort of contrast and colour that wasn’t there. The piece is, after all, a bit of a patchwork quilt of various rowdy drinking songs and other tunes.

I was a more than a bit nervous about how Brahms’ Fourth Symphony would fare – a favourite piece of mine and one I have heard dozens and dozens of times. Sadly, I was right to be concerned. The opening Allegro non troppo was taken at a slower than usual pace. This was befuddling. Perhaps the conductor wanted to emphasise the gravitas in the music, the key of e minor and / or the melancholic nature of the symphony but it seemed ponderous. The fact that the second movement Moderato was pretty much taken at the same tempo as the first only served to confirm that fact. Even the joyous third movement seemed unnecessarily restrained. Only in the last part of the fourth and final movement did the piece really come to life but by then it was a bit too late. I suspect many in the audience thought the same as there was none of the usual cheering from the sold out Town Hall audience.

A real shame as this should have been an excellent evening’s music.

About TI

TI is based in Auckland, New Zealand. TI's somewhat eclectic interests include (but are certainly not limited to) legal humour (the law can be funny), good wine, the search for the best possible chocolate, alcoholic beverages, travel, commercial aircraft, photography, weird news stories and classical music.
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