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Oh Bother

The Rover 3.12.2011

The evening started with an explanation that the order of the pieces was changed so that the orchestra would only have to shuffle seats once. For Beethoven’s 1st Concerto, they were seated tightly around the piano, with its back to us, in the manner of an 18th century chamber concert, so that we might appreciate the authenticity. But why have a conductor, then? And modern instruments? And shouldn’t the 2,000 seat hall have been torn down and replaced with a ducal palace room? Even yelled as loudly as I could, these questions went unanswered.

Authenticity is a slippery fish. It often covers for other things, like the fancies of a conductor, and sluggish Sir Norrington is a con-duc-tor of the personality school; he conducted with one hand in his trousers, and when that was too tiresome he sat down. Le roi s’amuse, indeed.

His Beethoven was weary and careful; this second quality suited pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, who was totally in control and very precise. Together, they played a restrained allegro, made up for it with a sumptuous largo full of caresses (not a word you associate with a pallid Scandinavian and a paunchy Brit), and a rolly-polly rondo, like watching Norrington dance, I imagine.

While he changed postures, a cell phone went off, twice, in row F. Not only was it extraordinarily loud, but the techno ringer sucked in a major way. The second time we silently killed and ate the owner – last thing I saw was a fierce madame with appropriate dentures bite the electronics in half.

The second half of the evening was given over to the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (hardly a towering figure in music, the comparison with Beethoven in the programme notes notwithstanding) who specialized in the production of an anaesthetic effect at long ranges. He had a fabulous career in the army.

This is a cruel joke if you know something about Williams because his music took a turn for the better after he served in the First World War. But this evening’s selections were both pre-war and consequently untouched by the complications of that experience. Perhaps Bertie Wooster would have been moved, but both the London Symphony and his Wasps overture are foggy hodgepodge, the musical equivalent of Bubble and Squeak in a Heathrow restaurant, or an hour-long advert soundtrack that’s got lost in itself. It was rough going and I won’t do it again, though the evening was worth hearing Andsnes’s magical precision live.