S&H Competition Review

Donatella Flick Conducting Competition Barbican, 23 October 2000. (MB)

How extraordinary it was to hear one of Beethoven's Egmont overture in three highly contrasted performances - and an LSO on superlative form following the whims, or otherwise, of the three young conductors who made it to the final of the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition.

At times one was left aghast at the imaginative brilliance deployed, at others deflated by a conductor's singular lack of understanding of one of the keystones of the repertoire. Nothing illustrates the gulf between the music of today - which is so often conducted meticulously - and the music of Egmont which seemed, at times, to be quite outside the grasp of these young conductors. It is an accusation which, of course, one can equally apply to some of the most famous maestros conducting today.

It is somewhat ironic that the single performance which stood out (and still resonates in the mind after the concert) should actually be a performance of the Egmont Overture. This was not the best performance of any of the works on offer during the evening, but it was by some distance the most fascinating. Pablo Gonzalez, the 25-year old Spanish conductor, opened the concert with a performance that was as idiosyncratic as any I have ever heard but which compelled attention from first note to last. With enormous ritardandos accompanying the weightiest of opening chords his Egmont was conceived on the wildest scale. Beethoven's tempi were all but ignored, but the balance he achieved of woodwind against strings was exemplary. He conjured from the LSO phrasing that was spellbinding and a depth of string tone that put more traditional Beethoven orchestras to shame. Many conductors achieve precisely this effect by allowing time for the orchestra to enter after the conductor's beat; with Gonzalez one was almost aware of time being suspended so long breathed was the space between his beat and the orchestra's entry. Nothing prepared us for the coda which was demonic - fiery, impassioned and red-blooded. It reminded me of the young Celibidache conducting a Berlin Philharmonic in the post war ruins of Berlin, or Koussevitsky's legendary film of the same work. Enigmatic it may have been, even controversial, but it more than confirmed Mr Gonzalez as a conductor of rare intellect.

How disappointing, therefore, to find his Till Eulenspiegel so uninspiring. The sheer weight he brought to the Beethoven he also brought to the Strauss - and as a result it lacked sparkle and humour. This was too conscientious a performance, serious where the element of the prankster should always be in evidence. This most picaresque of the tone poems seemed to lack spontaneity, the drama forced rather than unfolding naturally. The frequent, and sudden, changes of tempo were not handled as precisely as they should have been and the flexibility of the music was often at odds with the glowing tone of the orchestra which, if anything, became a burden. It was not at all Straussian, and shockingly heavy handed for a Mediterranean conductor where one expects at least a little warmth in a work such as this.

The 29-year-old British conductor, Timothy Redmond, followed. His earlier rounds obviously impressed the judges sufficiently for him to be included in the final but what a major disappointment he turned out to be. On the evening he appeared dull, insipid, uninvolving and listless. The LSO sensed this too - for their playing was prone to be less than secure for him. His Beethoven was a shock after Gonzalez' epic, monolithic edifice. There was considerably less weight - both to the string sound and to the overall structure of the work. Whereas Gonzalez harked back to a tradition of granitic, almost Germanic interpretation Redmond gleaned inspiration from the authenticists. It was more fleetly played, but also depressingly dull.

Redmond, with a baton technique more akin to the school of Fritz Reiner and Richard Strauss, simply failed to get much of a response from the LSO. One had high hopes for his Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes but in the end they too lacked imagination and power. Moonlight shimmered but came close to stasis mid way through; Dawn was evocative but passed beneath bellowing clouds far too quickly. His storm was more like a summer down-pore. Mr Redmond may well have had an off night but on this showing he was simply outclassed by his two rivals.

After the interval we were given what turned out to be the most well balanced performances of the evening. Francois-Xavier Roth, a 29 year old Frenchman, gave a blistering account of Egmont where beauty of tone and an understanding of Beethoven's metronome markings went hand-in-hand. The only conductor to conduct without a baton, he drew superlative phrasing from a clearly rejuvenated LSO and he caressed the dynamics like an ardent lover. This was accomplished conducting - about that there can be no doubt.

If his Egmont was superbly balanced - and exciting - it could not possibly have prepared us for his Firebird Suite in the 1919 version. It was a shattering performance - the single triumph of the evening. Without a baton he was able to secure a remarkable balancing of textures - sustaining the most delicate pianissimos at one moment and wielding fortes like an axe the next. The brass were never overwhelming (as can so often happen in Stravinsky) and the woodwind were as graceful as swans in Mr Roth's sculptors hands. The orchestral colour that should have been evident in the earlier Britten was here kaleidoscopic, refracting like a rainbow over a dewy dawn. Mr Roth's understanding of Stravinskian rhythm was superb, and he drew from the LSO electrifying playing. There was no wonder virtually every member of the orchestra applauded him and the audience (for the first time) cheered a conductor to the rafters. It was the kind of performance any young conductor could only dream of giving - but for Mr Roth it became a reality.

Three conductors and three very different techniques. Redmond was out of sorts, giving performances as understated as his podium style; Gonzalez acted like a martinet on the podium with enormous gestures not always achieving the desired (or intended) results and Roth, batonless and in a suit, Kleiber-style, moulded his interpretations like a skilled craftsman.

The jury seemed to take forever (so much so, this critic left). My hopes when I emailed the press office for the results the next morning were that Roth should probably win (he was clearly the audience's favourite) although I would not have been disappointed if Gonzalez was the victor either. In an ideal world both should have won. The outcome was that both did win - the competition producing its first tied result in its history. The LSO should have a very interesting year playing under these young conductors. They should find the experience an illuminating one.

Marc Bridle

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