S&H Concert review

Lorin Maazel conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Arcadi Volodos (pf) Mahler: Symphony No.5 RFH, 31 May 2001
Mozart: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No.5 in A, K.219, Gil Shaham (vln) Bruckner: Symphony No.8 RFH, 3 June 2001
Philharmonia Orchestra, Lorin Maazel

Lorin Maazel's two concerts with the Philharmonia were fine examples of this conductor's ability to surprise. At 71 one might have expected Maazel to settle down into the Indian Summer of his New York years with little change to his conception of these major symphonies. I had expected his Mahler to be significantly less expansive than it was and his Bruckner to be more expansive than it turned out. Both were significant achievements - not least in the orchestral playing which was superlative - and both were compelling interpretations that stand the test of reconsidered analysis.

If Maazel's Mahler owes more to Bernstein and Karajan than it does to today's younger interpreters this is not necessarily a bad thing. The opening trumpet tattoo in the first movement, for example, was as measured as the gait established at the very opening - something increasingly rare to hear these days. This was a performance which was largely taken in tempo the result being that the first movement explored the funereal procession with a heady mix of buoyancy and optimism. When the climaxes came they were shattering and stunningly articulated. The second movement's turbulence had already been anticipated in the weighty klagend section of the first movement - the opening string attack appearing to ride on the sound of a mass of malevolent gravediggers turning the earth. There was room, however, for dissipation - the cello melody after the development offered tranquility amid the frenzy - yet such was the tension Maazel generated it had a disquieting affect, a temporality that summoned up calm beside the hurricane swirling around it. The brass chorales before the coda were triumphantly done, the collapse into the movement's eerie closing bars - cellos, basses and woodwind chilling in their repose - seemingly stark. The scherzo moved briskly - the combination of fugato, ländler and waltz all clearly disseminated. The horn obbligato was given with both precision and sorrowful phrasing. If there was a moment of contentiousness in this performance it was Maazel's handling of the adagietto. At almost 12 minutes it seemed too long. However, the Philharmonia strings and harps achieved wonders beyond the notes playing with almost heart-breaking plangency. Where it might have been easy for the tension of the performance to have been irretrievably broken Maazel managed to hold the performance intact, the long upbeats given expressiveness in their own right. The final movement combined incandescent orchestral virtuosity with an unambiguous thrust (evident throughout the movement's entire development) towards the coda's thrilling close.


The Philharmonia have played Mahler's Fifth many times (most recently in a new recording by Benjamin Zander) so it is perhaps unsurprising that it should have been played so superlatively. Bruckner's Eighth, however, must surely be less familiar to them (as it also evidently is on the London concert scene - I cannot remember a performance in the past year). Again, Maazel encouraged playing of absolute conviction from his players even if at first the performance seemed a little rough around the edges. The Eighth should open in a mood of transcendence but Maazel seemed a little too reticent to let this happen - the ascending theme on violas, cellos and basses seemed hurried almost as if he couldn't wait for Bruckner's apocalyptic vision to explode before us. Where the growth towards catastrophe is preternaturally born from the subtlest dynamics Maazel's first movement seemed almost to have reached adolescence from its very opening. The performance improved immeasurably, not least in the scherzo. Here Maazel brought a Schubertian lilt and lyricism to Bruckner's scoring with violins particularly fleeting and light in their articulation (and what a marvellous moment with pizzicato cellos and violas on the right sublimated by pianissimo violins on the left. The sound melded as I have never heard it do so before). This performance turned a corner when it came to the adagio. The Philharmonia strings gained a richness in tone that was as beguiling as it was intense - cellos were shrouded in the darkest timbers and basses produced a sonority of God-like wrath. When first and second violins played on G and D strings they produced the most breathless sounding transparency. Transparency is indeed the key word when describing Maazel's vision of the adagio - here we had playing that brandished colour like glass reflecting sunlight on a summer's day and the most burnished phrasing from Wagner tubas and horns recalling the tone of a single, indistinguishable murmur. At times this performance was animated by nothing other than a lone note played on a violin or horn and which sang with a thousand voices. The sense of disembodiment, of timelessness, eerily felt like one had been marooned on a deserted island. In contrast, the climaxes had awesome breadth, not least in the huge E flat major chord with its thrilling realisation of magnification (and dramatic double cymbal clash). The whole of this adagio was a mesmerising example of conductor and orchestra working in synergy, contrasting upheaval and stillness with heroic divination. Maazel and the Philharmonia brought colossal power to the finale as, first, trombones, horns and trumpets slipped like an avalanche into terrifying cascades of sound and then violins, violas and cellos produced a subdued, but restless, calm. When the coda came the performance was finally crowned by a luminous glow as C major triumphed.

Each performance of the symphony was preceded by a concerto. Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, played (or rather attacked) by Arcadi Volodos paired Mahler's Fifth. Technically, Volodos (perched rigidly on a high-backed chair) can fear no one - he ripped through the octave passages with stunning precision, his hands flaying like whips. However, impressive as all this undoubtedly was soloist and orchestra might just as well have been performing on different sides of the Atlantic. Volodos pushed forward with unrestrained incandescence leaving the Philharmonia breathlessly trying to catch up. While the Philharmonia played with a sense of proportion and dynamic range, Volodos thundered up and down the keyboard like a petulant child. As an example of pianism it was thrilling; as a performance of one of the war-horses of the concerto repertoire it left much to be desired. Gil Shaham, in Mozart's Fifth Violin Concerto, was very much better - as one would expect of one of the most charismatic and 'sunny' of today's younger generation of violinists. One of the more distinctive pupils of the De Lay school of teaching he at least has an individual beauty of tone (like a vintage Petrus, dark and intense) that sets him apart from his contemporaries. Listening to his Mozart, lithe and bright, and without fastidiousness, was genuinely uplifting. The Philharmonia played magnificently for him.

Maazel has had a long association with the Philharmonia Orchestra (from Klemperer's day) and they clearly like working with him - they offered during both the Mahler and Bruckner playing that was genuinely world class, as opulent as anything from Vienna and as dramatic as anything from Chicago. It is fashionable to disparage conductors of Maazel's generation - a New York critic recently said he was the last person the New York Philharmonic should have chosen to replace Kurt Masur - yet these Philharmonia concerts, like his LSO series last year, demonstrate Maazel to be a conductor of real greatness in an era still short of great conductors.

Marc Bridle

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