Pianistic wonders

The start of a Beethoven marathon and late-night Chopin made for a rewarding evening at the Proms, writes Nick Shave

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It started half way through the slow movement, somewhere near my left ear: first a heavy intake of breath, then a gentle snort, as the gentleman with the plastic bag sitting next to me slipped into light sleep.

More easily audible from my right, Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto was receiving careful attention from Paul Lewis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, by no means uninspiring enough to merit a gradual descent of chin towards chest, but too careful, perhaps, to have us clinging to the edge of our seats.

It was the first of the five Beethoven Concertos that Lewis will perform at the Proms this year. Here, at the start of the marathon, his pianism was poised and beautifully intoned, capturing all the Mozartian qualities of Beethoven’s Viennese masterpiece. Humour, too, carried well in both the first and last movements, keenly supported by the orchestra’s almost chamber-like approach.

If anything was lacking at times, it was that raw power and energy that unmistakably belongs to Beethoven. For my taste, it was all just a little too polite. After the interval, Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto fared better, with a particularly compelling dialogue between soloist and orchestra in the second movement.

But still it raised the question as to whether the cavernous space of the Royal Albert Hall requires grand gestures in order to make us sit up (or stand up) and listen.

That thought was quickly dispelled when, on the strike of 10pm, Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires took her solitary place beneath the spotlight for a late-night recital of Chopin’s Nocturnes. From the first lingering anticipations of the Op. 9, No. 1 in B flat minor, these miniatures – written for the intimacy of the 19th-century salon – instantly held the Hall within their grasp. Pires summoned up an almost supernatural tone quality – every note of the melody sang, though hauntingly pianissimo. Here was something special.

The programme took us from Chopin’s first set of genre-defining Nocturnes, to the innovative Op. 15 – each produced with a wonderfully weighted articulation of his free-flowing forms. The undercurrents of darkness that simmer beneath these works – not least the brooding C sharp minor Op. 27 – welled to the surface with a spontaneity and urgency that was really quite breathtaking.

At times, the huge spaces of the Royal Albert Hall – two thirds full – took on the intimacy and natural informality of a jazz venue. (Repressed patters quickly gave way to cascades between pieces, as many found they could not resist the urge to applause.) Pires reminded us of how harmonically daring these Nocturnes are – and delicate too, finding a lightness of touch in the ornamentation of the first of Chopin’s last Nocturnes, the Op. 62.

Completing the programme, an exquisitely delivered Op 72 No. 1 and the C sharp minor Lento con gran espressione – the power and delicacy of which offered a firm reminder as to why Pires is one of the finest interpreters of this repertoire today.

To say Pires’s playing was captivating would be an understatement – it left me speechless.

Listen to both Proms on BBC iPlayer until Wednesday 28 July here.

Nick Shave is a freelance music writer, critic, and contributing editor to BBC Music Magazine. He has spent many happy summers reviewing the Proms, but is still prone to a loss of bearings when choosing the quickest way round the Royal Albert Hall

 

Image: Felix Broede

Related links:
Proms Diary: Symphony of a Thousand
CD Review: Maria João Pires performs Chopin's Nocturnes