What do you get if you cross a famous American soloist with a top British orchestra in a programme of 18th century central European music linking late Baroque with Classical? The answer: a bit of a mess.
Thursday’s concert was perhaps a snapshot of the difficult position the contemporary concert of classical music finds itself in, as well as a reminder that masterful performers playing masterful music is not always a formula for success. Driven by conflicting desires – to act in the spirit of the composer; to satisfy the cult of virtuoso; to play in a modern concert hall; to programme originally – Perahia and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields looked slightly confused.
The concert opened with a work by the well-known (but rarely heard) youngest son of Johannes Sebastian. No conductor, yet front desks were largely soloistic (the concertante bit), leaving the orchestra looking uncomfortable and playing with a surprising timidity. Evidently, chamber music intimacy was being sought, but lack of familiarity with the piece, the style and each other seemed to mar the proceedings.
For the next part, out came the piano for the much more famous Mozart (the orchestra visibly relaxing into the familiar musical style), directed à la Barenboim from the keyboard. Is he the soloist, is he the director of an ensemble? The piano was turned so that Perahia’s back was to the audience (just as Mozart’s would have been), yet someone had badly mistaken the acoustic of the Royal Concert Hall (awkward at the best of times) by leaving the lid on the piano at half-stick, which shot its sound into the ear of some unfortunate violist; it certainly didn’t reach the bulk of the audience, to whom the outstandingly beautiful piano playing was inaudible in the tuttisections. It’s a wonder they didn’t just take the lid off altogether; it must have obscured Perahia’s line of sight to parts of the orchestra. Anyway, it wasn’t clear if he was actually conducting the group, or just bopping along to the music.
For the second concerto item, the wonderful JS Bach D major, Perahia appeared replete with spectacles, score and page turner, obviously even less able to direct and play at the same time. While apparently trying to cultivate the intimate chamber quality of the Baroque concerto (certainly done with his sophisticated phrasing), he couldn’t quite tear himself away from the nineteenth century tradition of the virtuoso performer that he belongs to. If we’re listening to a chamber ensemble, then why does Perahia need to make multiple journeys to the stage door and back in his outmoded tailcoat to acknowledge the applause? Utterly incongruous. Again, the beautiful playing was marred by the loss of piano sound in large sections; not to forget that each movement was brought to a close with an unnecessary and rather irritating ritenuto. A schoolboy’s notion of elegance.
To round of this mélange of musical artefacts was Mozart’s 38th symphony. Somebody must have mentioned that all ‘serious’ programmes culminate in a symphony, and serious was the expression on Perahia’s face as he undertook the grave task of conducting the orchestra (“I’m not just a pianist”). Given the alarming propensity of his downbeats to go up the way and lack of correlation between his self-conscious gestures and the orchestra’s actual sound, one wondered that were a rotten floorboard to give way and Perahia suddenly to disappear through the stage, would the orchestra continue playing as if nothing had happened? Probably, they would. Despite the brilliancy of the orchestra, the clarity of the strings and the pearly sounds produced, there was something of the contrast, the comic and even the raucous that can be found in Mozart that was lacking. It was a performance reminded us that the idea of Mozart-the-neat still persists.
As if incongruity hadn’t reached heights enough, the concert finished with a nod to the salon tradition: an encore. And what else but an isolated movement from a Haydn symphony could offer yet another example of musical incoherence to round off the evening?