This was a special occasion indeed: the Philharmonia
Orchestra was celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Musician’s
Benevolent Fund’s Royal Concert. Security was at a premium because of
the presence of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh (bags were searched
as one entered the RFH and there was a police presence around the hall).
The Fanfare Trumpeters of the Royal Military School of Music lent a
sense of pomp to the concert: the performance of Gordon Jacob’s arrangement
of the National Anthem generated an impressive sense of occasion before
the ‘real’ concert got underway.
Felix Weingartner is best remembered as a conductor,
but he was also a composer (he wrote nine operas and seven symphonies).
His arrangement for string orchestra of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge,
Op. 133 is very much of its time: big-boned, grand and dramatic. Of
course, the use of a full body of strings necessarily takes the raw
edge off the opening, the use of four additional double basses cushioning
the sound (it is so much more effective in its original, for string
quartet). It was worrying that the Philharmonia’s first violins sounded
uncharacteristically scrappy and the second violins were uncomfortable
with their more exposed passages. It is true that Christoph von Dohnányi
made the most of the more progressive parts of the score later on
(even evoking the ghost of late Mahler at one point!) but the ending
was half-hearted and unconvincing.
for Orchestra (1954) packs an enormous amount of incident into its
fairly short duration (around 30 minutes). Here one could hear the Philharmonia
relishing the multiple challenges. Since its première (by the
Warsaw Philharmonic under Rowicki) this
piece has maintained its popularity. It does, indeed, show Lutoslawski
at his most approachable. The scoring is virtuoso and there is an exuberance
of invention that is, at times, simply breathtaking. Dohnányi emphasised
the Bartókian influences. Rhythms were tight and the ‘Capriccio
notturno’ was distinguished by its flickering, scurrying figures. In
fact the strings were excellent (almost as if a different section had
formal processes aid intelligibility, but within this scheme
there is a multiplicity of difficulties, from which the Philharmonia
emerged triumphant. The Shostakovich-like build up of the Passacaglia
from its dark beginnings had an ominous inevitability and the final
chorale was highlighted by the blazing brass.
I hope my enthusiasm for
this piece will inspire readers to try it: there is an all-Lutoslawski
Philips Duo set which includes Rowicki’s performance with the Warsaw
National Philharmonic Orchestra on 464
If the idea of putting the ‘Emperor’ in the second
half was to make Mikhael Pletnev the star, it was a misplaced
one. Pletnev may possess a sure technique, but he put it to the service
of a decidedly perverse reading. When he tried to give the impression
of improvising in his initial flourishes, all that came across was rehearsed
rubato. His free approach and aggressive, insistent point making with
no real structural basis became, after a (short) while, simply irritating.
The Philharmonia responded with a well disciplined but nonetheless routine
accompaniment (sforzandi could certainly have been given more
The Adagio un poco mosso (actually too fast
to warrant the ‘adagio’ marking) continued the sequence of surprises.
Pletnev treated one forte passage exactly like an étude
but was at least consistent in his approach by interrupting phrases
inappropriately, just as he had done in the first movement. The magical
transition to the finale was on the perfunctory side (Pletnev’s lifting
of his hands well away from the keyboard in between statements of the
slowed-down rondo theme hardly helped); thereafter, the last movement
lacked the dynamism it so desperately needs. Towards the close, as timpani
repeated the basic rhythm underneath the piano’s descending sequence
of chords, Pletnev elected to bring matters to a premature complete
halt. It was a disturbing, anti-Beethovenian moment that was symptomatic
of the reading as a whole.
Hardly a successful season for ‘Emperor’s at the South
Bank, then (Lars
Vogt similarly fell at this hurdle
when joining the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Leif Segerstam). At
least I have the memory of the Lutoslawski as a consolation.