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Heroic failures

Concertgebouw / Chailly Barbican, London
The opening chords of Beethoven's Egmont overture usually tell all. They can be snappy as gunfire, angry as thunder or just plain dull - and what follows is usually in the same vein. Tuesday's Egmont was dull: the Concertgebouw played fairly well, and Riccardo Chailly quivered at every fortissimo, his outsize gestures recalling the "Maestrissimo" clichs of musical cartoons. But was the orchestra actually watching him? Not that I could see.

Still, come the scene-change, Chailly reappeared with a diminutive figure whose sparkling demeanour suggested a truant schoolgirl. Maria Joo Pires is a pianist's pianist whose wide keyboard vocabulary accommodates a generous expressive range. And of course Beethoven's Third Concerto is a minefield of potential pitfalls, especially in matters of balance and dialogue between soloist and orchestra. But this performance worked very well. Chailly drove a warm, fairly animated opening tutti, while Pires responded with impressive confidence and clean, forceful fingerwork. The cadenza too (Beethoven's own) boasted a wide catalogue of pianistic colours, and that magical moment when quiet string chords usher in the orchestra's return could hardly have been more sensitively handled. This and similar passages suggested the intimacy of chamber music, and if the closing Rondo went well (with plenty of playful badinage between pianist and orchestra), the Largo was something special.

Then came Ein Heldenleben, that maddeningly egocentric blend of genius and banality which Strauss dedicated to Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw. If Tuesday's performance is anything to go by, Chailly hasn't much to tell us about Strauss's hero that we don't already know. The opening "Hero" was properly sonorous (with marvellous lower strings), while the orchestral build-up towards "The Hero's Battlefield" gathered considerable momentum, but the climb-down lacked pathos and the close was a little hurried. Judged overall, it was a rousing, superficially impressive display. Yet I couldn't escape the suspicion that Chailly's heart wasn't in it.