Mozart finished the Piano Concerto no. 27 in January 1791, the year he was to die. His music had fallen out of favour in Vienna, he was very short of funds, and he and his wife had been repeatedly unwell over the previous years. These uncomfortable circumstances and his imminent death prompt some performers to see the wistful lyricism, the restraint – there are neither trumpets nor drums – and the tendency to slip into minor keys in the concerto as redolent of personal suffering and a valedictory relationship to the material world. The work is then rendered with a gentle, melancholy restraint and romantic pathos.
None of that in tonight's performance! Martin Helmchen, just a year or two younger than Mozart was when he began writing this concerto, played with life-affirming virtuosity and he confronted the distant modulations at the heart of the first movement development with unflinching courage. Far from the weak composition of a delicate constitution, Helmchen revealed in this concerto passages of Beethovenian heft, especially in the cadenzas (that Mozart wrote himself). His timing in leading from the first movement cadenza to the re-entry of the orchestra was imperious, handled to perfection. The clarity and rhythmic articulation of his fast scales and passage work, the shaping of the phrases, and the overall grasp of the form of the work, demonstrated a technical and an intellectual prowess that made this a performance to treasure.
The Larghetto second movement did not retreat into melancholy sentimentality. Helmchen kept the rhythm of the simple melody taut so as not to endanger the coherence of his interpretation. The concerto is one of Mozart's most concise works in the economy of its melodic content. The close relation of the themes of each movement needs to be apparent for the strength of its construction to register. Helmchen's approach was exemplary in this respect, even to the restrained pacing of the Rondo that allowed the movement to be really just another exploration of the material of the previous two movements.
The Philharmonia is always a joy to listen to, and their accompanying role was performed with great beauty, but at times I felt smaller forces and more crisply defined articulation from the strings would have been more consistent with their young soloist's approach. The dialogues between piano and flute and oboes were breathtakingly eloquent, each seeming to listen to and respond to the other. Altogether this was a stunning first half.
The orchestra sounded very good indeed in the Bruckner, and Dohnányi had obviously put considerable thought into orchestral balance and refinement. He was also keen to keep the form of this vast work under a tight rein, and this was especially effective in the immense Finale. Dohnányi's clear-sighted control kept it all in place and built it powerfully to the blazing coda.
But such reservations as I have about this performance stem from the conductor's wish to keep matters refined, balanced and controlled. Even the most dramatic moments, such as the trumpet fanfares at the crisis of the first movement, never seemed in danger of turning ugly, and hence didn't quite have that spontaneity of utterance that might raise an excellent performance to a great one. But there were some very special moments. Unforgettable was the opening of the first movement development where a solo horn plays a slow version of the main theme above a barely audible violin tremolo, followed by a heart-rending echo on the oboe. The Scherzo was wonderfully fast, with rollicking stamping rhythms, and the Trio also went at quite a lick, so there was no danger at all of it pre-empting the slow movement proper. Bruckner calls for three harps "if possible": it was good to see them there on the far right, but even better if we could have heard them, their contribution in the Trio and the descending chorale passage in the Adagio often hard to locate.
In the coda to the finale Bruckner superimposes the main themes of all four movements, and for this to register orchestral balance is important. Whereas the trombones' and basses' first movement theme came over loud and clear, the first trumpet Scherzo theme and detail of the horns Adagio theme tended to get submerged in the welter of sound. Dohnányi's observation of the ritenuto on the final three falling unison notes was extreme, which had the effect of undermining the finality of the gesture.
Dohnányi and the Philharmonia have in the past done absolutely first-class Bruckner, witness their spell-binding performance of the Fourth Symphony in October 2008. This concert didn't shine quite as brilliantly as that, but nevertheless it was a considered and cogent performance, magnificently played and, coupled with such a fine performance of the Mozart, it made for a rewarding evening.
Austro-Hungarian composer Hugo Wolf was in such awe of Bruckner's monumental Eighth Symphony that he hailed it 'the creation of a giant', concluding that 'no Roman emperor could have wished for a greater triumph'. With the weight and grandeur of its themes and the Wagnerian ambition of its orchestration, such lofty praise would not seem misplaced. Indeed, today - over a century after its 1892 Vienna premiere - it remains an apotheosis of the symphonic form.
Here its epic scale and towering complexity are perfectly contrasted with the pared down introspection of Mozart's Concerto No.27.
Southbank Centre: Royal Festival HallBelvedere Road
London Greater London United Kingdom SE1 8XX
Martin Helmchen © Giorgia Bertazzi