The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra this year presented a Beethoven Festival concentrating on the piano concertos, by definition a shorter season then when they presented all nine symphonies in 2011.
However, the orchestra has been rewarded with strong bookings for all five concertos. Further, the programming has been imaginative: generally each concerto has a contemporaneous work to begin (mainly Haydn) and a later work to follow it, and the varied notes for each program show the connection between them.
The conductor for all five concertos is Douglas Boyd, and the all-important pianist Paul Lewis. With evident rapport with the MSO these choices were vindicated, certainly on the night I visited Hamer Hall to hear my favourite of the five concertos, Number Four.
The first work was by Mozart’s contemporary, Haydn, the Symphony number 103, nicknamed the Drumroll. It was unashamedly a curtain-raiser for the Beethoven but, unusually, it began with an adagio. A solo cello articulated the theme before the winds and delicate violins paved the way for a full tutti engagement. Also somewhat unusually, the movement then moved to a spirited Allegro, dance-like in its energy, with the orchestra apparently getting into the spirit of things.
It took a surprisingly long time for the audience to settle after this first movement, but at last there was enough silence for the solemn, but not laboured, Andante. The violins provided a quite delicate lead, although there was a march style interlude, which was stirring. Leader of the orchestra Dale Barthrop, obliged with a solo that seemed a variation of the first theme. Again, mid-movement, the mood changed to an emphatic one, with drums and brass delivering a climax that carried the music through to the end of the work.
The central work – Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto, was first performed in 1807, but apparently obscure until its revival in 1836 by Mendelssohn. Paul Lewis’s personal style is unassuming (despite his undeniable good looks), but the Concerto itself insists on attention to the pianist. The soloist begins the work with repeated chords and gentle arpeggio, a unique opening to a Beethoven concerto. Although the orchestra develops the theme that has been introduced it never quite takes over from the soloist in importance. Fortunately, under Boyd’s conducting the MSO seemed content to play beautifully but not showily so that Lewis’s performance was always on centre stage.
And what a performance it was! Whether in partnership with the winds – such as Prue Davis on flute and Jeff Crellin playing the oboe – or with a full orchestra, Lewis was undeniably the centre of attention. Ironically unlike many others in his profession, Lewis is a modest performer, which makes his brilliant command of the piano all the more noteworthy. Because the concerto is not loud for much of its length, the pianist’s technical prowess can be missed, especially if the listener does not have the privilege of seeing his hands.
Before the first movement was even finished, Lewis had delivered brilliant trills, arpeggios and runs, across the full extent of the keyboard. Often the dynamics marking is soft or moderately soft, so that this mastery can be lost. But the clarity and beauty of sound win through, so that each movement has its own delights. One of these was the cadenza for the first movement. It was introspective and clever, gradually building a complexity and ultimately involving the whole orchestra, the pizzicato sound supporting what Lewis was doing.
The second movement was the orchestra’s to open this time, a dotted rhythm being a feature of the introduction. The piano entry came soon and was contrasting and quite hymn-like in its solemn chords. Lewis’s s touch was both calm and virtuosic, no small feat! But it was the final movement Rondo (Vivace) that set a pattern of technical fireworks, Lewis adding fast chromatic scales to the repertoire, with a cheeky edge at times.
In the end the orchestra became the accompaniment, as Beethoven gave the piano the task of embellishing the iteration of the theme. Lewis was only too happy to oblige, maintaining however a graceful understated air even when the audience recognised that they were witnessing technical brilliance. An encore, said to be by Brahms, with the emphasis this time on sheer lyricism, rounded off a memorable performance – even in a week crowded with fine music.
Editor’s note: The final work on the program was Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night. I have already confessed to a partiality for the Beethoven and chose to leave the concert hall with that ringing in my ears.
Not surprisingly, all reports are that the MSO went on to perform the Schoenberg to the satisfaction of an audience already pleased with what they had heard in the first part of the concert.