Classical: A partnership caught off balance

Live: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra With Maurizio Pollini Royal Festival Hall, London
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The Independent Culture
VIEWS ON Schumann's Piano Concerto vary. Liszt thought that Schumann gave the soloist too little to do. Others have complained that the orchestra is relegated to accompanist. If Liszt had heard Maurizio Pollini on Tuesday night, he might have reconsidered. But then he might not have liked what he heard - a monochrome sort of continuo, emphasised so that the back rows could catch every note, regardless of whether it should be in the foreground or not.

In fact, the piano and orchestra are woven together for much of the time in a partnership that calls for many subtle adjustments of balance, which were not made here, and in the outer movements Pollini tended to take the edge off rhythms so that they lost their true shape.

The concerto's first movement - despite its peremptory opening - is, above all, lyrical, and the orchestra and soloist should seem to woo each other; there are particularly lovely exchanges with individual woodwind instruments, but Pollini didn't seem to be listening to them. He was quite right, though, to play Schumann's cadenza - a sort of second development - straight and strong. Schumann's middle movement is an intermezzo, and should travel a good deal faster than most pianists and conductors allow. In this performance it moved a little more than it sometimes does, but still, after the initial tripping exchanges, that broad cello tune sounded like an indulgently crooned pop song.

Nor was there much elan in the waltz-like finale, which, though fast, was square and bullish - too large an orchestra playing much too loudly in the hall's analytic acoustic.

Which was why Mahler's First Symphony was a bad choice. Its magically atmospheric introduction, evoking the sounds - both far and near - of man and beast on the Bohemian plain, simply went for nothing and seemed dry and soulless. It would have sounded quite different, hopefully, in the Concertgebouw's own old-fashioned hall.

But the galumphing dance of the second movement didn't have much swing either - it was merely metronomic. And though Riccardo Chailly mimed with abandon in the beguiling Trio section, the conductor's movements didn't seem to be translated into sound.

Things improved in the haunting third movement, its hypnotic main tune ("Bruder Martin" or "Frere Jacques") launched by the sweetest double bass ever heard at that point: too sweet, surely. And the Klezmer episodes were rather too neat and tidy - a bit of earthy vulgarity would have been more in character. If there was plenty of brassiness in the finale, it didn't bring the longed-for redemption. This was the sort of modern music-making people often complain of: technically excellent but uninspiring.

Adrian Jack