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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Wednesday September 07 2005

Here is another of those photos that I like to take from the television, this time of the conductor David Zinman.  He and his Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich played at the Proms last week.  They did Wagner, Beethoven, and Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra.

image

The Beethoven, the Third Piano Concerto, with Emanuel Ax at the piano, was the piece that most interested me, this being one of my all time favourite pieces of music.  Zinman has recently recorded this with Yefim Bronfman for the Arte Nova super-bargain label, and just before this Prom (and with this forthcoming performance in mind), CD Review did a comparison of all the Beethoven PC 3s.  Interestingly, Bronfman and Zinman toppled the BBC guy’s previous top pick which was Schiff and Haitink, mainly because Zinman does the accompanying so well.

The piece was described by Ax on the television is being strong on “grandeur”, but I don’t think that’s quite right.  If there is grandeur, it is grandeur that is suppressed.  I recall once describing the piece for something I wrote in the old Free Life as something like “a revolutionary manifesto that has yet to achieve widespread respectability”, and I think that’s right.  The piano oscillates back and forth between explosive excitement and quieter but equally excited excitement.  It is loud, but then it is frightened that the secret police might have overheard, so it lowers its voice.

Zinman’s way with the piece fits well with such an interpretation, full of jabbing staccatos and sforzandos (the point about a sforzando being that the beginning is loud but the rest is quieter).  A sforzando wants your attention but is scared of waking the neighbours.

I found Bronfman on the Arte Nova recording to be no more than very good.  Ax at the Prom was something special.  His playing was gentler and more poised, more Chopin-like than I have described the piece in the above paragraphs, and I think Zinman responded by himself being more caressing and ingratiating with his accompanying.  More legato and less sforzando, you might say.  But it was very fine.

Another recent televised Prom pleasure was Thomas Adès
conducting Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, last night, with terrific pent up energy, making it sound very much as I have just been describing the Third Piano Concerto.  I missed the performance of the Adès Violin Concerto (the first performance having been given in Berlin a few days ago), dammit, and must try to hear it if they repeat it on the radio.  My prejudice about Ades, on the basis of having heard a number of his pieces and now hearing him conduct Beethoven, is that here is yet another failing-composer successful-conductor in the making.  Move over Boulez.  Like Boulez, Adès is the official version of a Great Composer, which I think is nonsense.  But maybe this violin concerto will win me over.

imageMost intriguing of all was watching Howard Shelley play the Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971) Second Piano Concerto, on Monday evening.  Shelley creates a completely different atmosphere to any other piano soloist I have ever watched at work.  Most of them sway about and emote and generally make a great show of being off in a world on their own, far beyond the mere orchestra.  Shelley, on the other hand, played like one of those pianists who sometimes plays in the orchestra, when the piece happens to have a piano part, like for example Shostakovich’s First Symphony does.  There was no emoting, real of fake.  Nor was there any suggestion that he would at any time play a wrong note, ever.  He wasn’t going for broke.  He was just playing the music.  I bet, I said to myself, the orchestra love him, because he is just like one of them.  And sure enough, they clapped with far more than normal orchestral politeness at the end.

On the other hand, I wondered if the air of mediocrity that settled over the music might have been partly the result of Shelley’s air of carefully impeccable craftsmanship.  I found myself wondering what the usual hysterical egomaniac, still trying to be the greatest pianist ever and taking all manner of crazy and crowd-pleasing risks in order to create that impression, and being loathed by the orchestra for it, might have made of the piece.  More, I found myself suspecting.