S&H Concert review

 BBC SO & Philharmonia Orchestra Concerts: Barbican, 9 May 2001 & RFH, 10 - 12 May, 2001 (MB)
Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra, Die Frau ohne Schatten - Symphonic Fantasy & Der Rosenkavalier (excerpts), BBC SO, Sir Charles Mackerras
Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto No. 2 & Prokofiev: Egyptian Nights, Philharmonia Orchestra, Valery Gergiev
Verdi: Requiem, Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus, Valery Gergiev
Stokowski Tribute Concert, BBC SO, Sir Andrew Davis

Such a concentrated period of concert going is likely to bring up disappointments but the performances that impressed least were those I had not expected to do so. Wednesday's Barbican concert with the BBC SO started with Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, a work more famous for its arresting opening than perhaps any other in the modern repertoire. From the very opening trumpet motif it seemed under-rehearsed and the brass playing throughout this performance never got off the ground. Indeed, Strauss' tendency to expose his brass players to merciless technical demands worked in opposing ways: the nervous co-existence of themes mirrored the nervousness of the playing in an unsettling fashion. Mackerras' view of the work is spacious - and for this reason it was not as electrifying as many I have heard. I craved a touch of the unrestrained Reiner, particularly before the post-climactic coda, but he did successfully manipulate the strings to ecstatic, liberated playing. Given such insecurity in the playing of the opening Strauss poem it was astonishing to find the BBC SO brass rejuvenated in the symphonic fantasy from Die Frau ohne Schatten. The opening 'Keikobad' motif was heavy (as it should be) and there was much to admire in the careful phrasing of the BBC woodwinds - and a particularly beguiling trombone solo for Barak's lyrical melody from the Act 3 duet.

The highlight of this concert - indeed one of the finest things I have heard this year - was the Der Rosenkavalier extracts, arranged by Mackerras. Starting with the opera's introduction, the close of Act 1, the presentation of the Silver Rose and the extended trio finale it made for riveting listening. Mackerras gives ample breadth to this music and he was rewarded with glorious playing. Yvonne Kenny as the Marschallin, Randi Stene as Octavian and Rebecca Evans as Sophie were a superbly well matched trio. Kenny conveys terrific vocal power in the role of the Marschallin and few performances seem to match so well the character Hofmannstahl designed as the protagonist. Kenny is noble and imperious, as well as touchingly vulnerable, in a role she will sing in San Francisco under Mackerras. Rebecca Evans' Sophie was a miracle of precision and beauty - how she achieved f on her top notes from such perfectly phrased p beginnings, without the slightest hint of ugliness or strain to her tone, was one of the enduring miracles of the evening. Randi Stene has a measured mezzo voice, which is neither too overwhelming for the role nor too unabashed in its opulence. The conclusion to the Act 3 trio was sensational - and profoundly moving. It had poise and colour in transparent glory. The performance was cheered to the rafters.

The Philharmonia's first concert as part of their 'Zurich Festival' under Valery Gergiev was a strange affair. I have always found Gergiev an infuriating conductor capable of stunning insights one moment and bewildering inflexibilities the next. His tempi never quite seem right to me - being either too slow or too fast with very little in between (I remember a perverse Rite of Spring some years ago which I have never forgotten for the simple reason it was so uniquely unforgettable). Yet, like Carlos Kleiber he has insights other conductors can only dream of. The opening piece in this concert (an unscheduled piece) was Prokofiev's rarely heard Egyptian Nights, Symphonic Suite. It was an amazing performance which elicited remarkable playing - notably from Kenneth Smith in a taxing flute part.

The reason to attend this concert was the performance of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto played by the little heard Russian pianist Alexander Toradze. There were many pianists in the audience - among then Evgeny Kissin - and it is not difficult to see why. A pianist in the grand Romantic tradition, Toradze gave a performance of this much-played work which you would be lucky to hear again - it was a once in a lifetime performance. He has a striking sound - aided by very heavy pedalling - which achieves unfathomable depths of sonority and tone. This was possibly as dark as you will ever hear this work. Yet, despite this he is also capable of delicacy on a breathtaking scale - pianissimos were almost inaudible - and there was such beauty of phrasing in the second movement adagio the colours became translucent. When it came to the bravura scherzando the incandescence of his technique recalled Cziffra - it was simply spellbinding playing that brought many people to their feet. However, I suspect the performance will sharply divide critics. Toradze's use of rubato - aided by Gergiev - distorted the usual fluidity of the work, the tempi flagrantly disregarding Rachmaninov's written markings. It was a fabulous performance, wonderfully played and dynamically rich - but as controversial as any I have heard of this concerto.

The second concert in the Philharmonia's 'Zurich Festival' was a performance of Verdi's Requiem, dedicated to Giuseppe Sinopoli who died last month. The Philharmonia are closely associated with this work - having given legendary performances under Cantelli, Giulini and Muti at the Festival Hall. This electrifying reading was worthy to stand beside them, Gergiev uncontroversially brilliant when the evening before he had been controversially so. Where Gergiev's recent recording of the Requiem is a hit-and-miss affair this thrilling reading had almost everything in place. Dimitria Theodossiou was probably too understated in the soprano part but there can be no doubt as to the beauty of her tone - colour streamed from her voice like a fountain and she brought breathless purity to her singing in the Libera Me. Bernarda Fink was mesmerising throughout the Dies Irae with weighty tone balanced by a remarkable dynamic range. Johan Botha, who was due to sing the tenor role, was ill and was replaced by David Rendall. Unlike Bocelli on Gergiev's recording, who is estimable if too bright of tone, Rendall has the perfect voice for the tenor part. He balanced faultless phrasing with ringing tone, the Ingemisco being as near perfect as I can remember. Carlo Colombara was similarly compelling.

However, the true stars of this performance were a Philharmonia Chorus on blazing form and an orchestra which played not just with brilliance but with radiance. Gergiev coaxed wonderful dynamics with the flick of a wrist, the opening of the Dies Irae having menacing force. The Sanctus was electrifying in its pacing, the Agnes Dei surreal in its beauty.

The BBC SO's second concert was billed as a tribute to Leopold Stokowski (as conductor and transcriber) and was in many ways the most fascinating of the four concerts under review here. If there had been blemishes in the playing of the BBC SO on Wednesday they were in quite superlative form for their former chief conductor, Andrew Davis, on Saturday. The brass fanfare which opened the concert was brilliantly articulated, yet it was Stokowski's arrangement of Bach's Toccata and Fugue which showed what this orchestra can achieve on the right day. Hearing Bach played in this way is so unfashionable and politically incorrect that many find the indulgence overwhelming. Yet, there are few experiences more thrilling than hearing Stokowski's masterly transcription played as wonderfully as it was here. Although there was less free bowing than this work ideally needs (collective bowing not being something Stokowski wanted for his Bach transcriptions) the string tone was opulent enough to convey the cathedral-like sonority Stokowski intended. Brass were fabulous, the effect a glittering symphonic view less attenuated and sparer than many are used to.

As a conductor Stokowski gave the premieres of hundreds of works, the US premiere in 1932 of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G being one of them. This performance played by the French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet had Gallic charm and a tonal palate which shimmered like moonlight. The jazzy Gershwin-like first movement was dazzling and the third movement presto was played with Mozartian dash. Thibaudet's authentic accent added much to the work's sparkling syncopations. Barber's Adagio, a work Stokowski played with the BBC SO in 1951, showed the BBC strings at their best. If initially the opening seemed understated the ascent to the middle section climax displayed an unerring ability to maximise this music's impassioned lyricism.

The closing work was Stokowski's transcription of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. If Ravel's version is by far the best known it is not necessarily the most memorable, even though it remains the most accomplished and colourful. For those who find Ravel too French in his orchestration Stokowski's (like Ashkenazy's) looks more towards a Slavic tone world. Stokowski removes both 'Tuilleries' and 'Limoges' from his arrangement the effect being to darken still further the work's palate. There are significant differences between Ravel's and Stokowski's orchestrations: Stokowski replaces the solo trumpet of the opening Promenade with the theme played out on strings, there are shimmering tremolandos throughout 'Gnome' and the following Promenade, and a cor anglais features in 'The Old Castle' rather than Ravel's alto saxophone. The darker toned wooden flute is used throughout rather than the more familiar steel flute. Stokowski's arrangement hints more at the work's sinister proclivities than Ravel's, particularly in the 'Catacombs' which is graphically intense with heavy brass, spiralling violin glissandos and thrilling crescendo rolls on bass drum and gong. The closing of the 'Great Gate of Kiev' has monumental power, and with added organ thrilling immediacy.

Andrew Davis directed an overwhelming performance, quite wonderfully played, and which spellbound the audience. With Stokowski's own Philadelphia recording of the work (once on Dutton) no longer available and the only other available recording being Matthias Bamert's the BBC should consider releasing this concert. It was remarkable music making, and a fitting climax to a fine week of concerts.

Marc Bridle

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