S&H Concert review

London Season: Opening Concerts - Philharmonia Orchestra & London Symphony Orchestra, RFH & Barbican, September/October 2001 (MB)


Two opening concerts, and two very different levels of achievement. Almost, in fact, as if it is business as usual.

The Philharmonia's opening concert was to have been conducted by Esa Pekka-Salonen and have Yefim Bronfman as soloist in Brahms' First Piano Concerto. Instead, we had two changes - Mikhail Pletnev as conductor and Nikolaï Lugansky as soloist, changes for the most part that were not to this concert's advantage. Pletnev began with a sluggish, and rather ill-defined, account of the Coriolan Overture that lacked both weight and tone. The Brahms was an improvement - and Lugansky something of a revelation. Perhaps the aristocratic poise this pianist displays on stage was better suited to the beauty of the second movement, which was subliminally poetic, than the fiery outer movements which were frequently short on drama. He spun of octaves more as a juggler than an artist but there was no doubting the refinement with which he did it. At times this seemed a langourous performance, much slower than it actually was.

Pletnev was quite masterly in Sibelius' Second Symphony - and the Philharmonia's playing, notably cool and detached in the first half, was much more memorable, even passionate. I can't help but think it would have been an entirely different matter if Salonen at been at the helm but as it was the performance had drama in abundance.

The Philharmonia, who had played so wonderfully for Eschenbach during the best single Prom of this year's season, were not at their best. The London Symphony Orchestra, however, were on sparkling form in Mozart and Elgar under their Principal Conductor, Sir Colin Davis. Opening with a sumptuously played performance of Mozart's K467 Piano Concerto (with Mitsuko Uchida) and which had delicacy, beauty and refinement in equal measure, the LSO were as light as air. It was as graceful a performance as you could ever hope to hear, Uchida's own cadenzas as echt Mozartian as you could wish. Elgar's Symphony No 1, being recorded for future release, was utterly compelling - a spacious, taut performance that had Brucknerian nobility. The new Barbican acoustics (of which more later) vastly improved the sound of the orchestra - violas, cellos and basses were absolutely resplendent in tone and brass were thrillingly direct. The space that Davis allowed between the bar lines gave this performance an overwhelming opulence as the sound opened up like a golden chrysalis.

The acoustical improvements to the Barbican are indeed dramatic. The objective has been to improve the sound for both the musicians and the audience. To do this the over-stage canopy has been raised by two meters and integrated into a succession of curved acoustic reflectors (rather like gliders) which ascend steeply from the stage into the main body of the hall. The theory is that full-bodied sound is distributed more evenly throughout the hall. In practice, this is precisely what happens - the bass response (which was always a presence at the Barbican) is now noticeably warmer than was previously possible. It was indeed a revelation to hear the basses almost ideally balanced in the Elgar - their sound individualised rather than opaquely projected as could be the case before the improvements. With that dryness all but eliminated orchestral concerts at the Barbican should be an opulent experience.

Marc Bridle

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