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S&H Concert review

Beethoven, Lutoslawski: Mikhail Pletnev; Philharmonia Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi, Royal Festival Hall, Tuesday, November 13th, 2001 (CC).

 

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.

Lutoslawski’s Concerto 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 wondered in!).

Lutoslawski’s clear 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 464 043-2.

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 bite).

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.

Colin Clarke

 


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