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S & H Concert Review

Mozart, Stravinsky: Soloists; London Voices; London Philharmonic Orchestra/Lothar Zagrosek. Royal Festival Hall, February 17th, 2002 (CC)


Haitink’s second cancellation brought in its wake a double-whammy of conducting absenteeism: the ‘first replacement conductor’, Mark Elder, was himself indisposed, leaving Lothar Zagrosek to take over the helmsman’s role at the last moment. As if that was not enough, Petra Lang, who has impressed so much in the past (see my review of a Haitink concert which happened, a memorable Wesendonk-Lieder on April 12th, 2000) also cancelled. The American soprano Jane Henschel stood in, taking the part of Jocasta in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex.

It is remarkable, then, that this concert should have in the event been so memorable. Zagrosek’s account of the Mozart’s Prague Symphony was notable on several levels and was significantly more convincing that Sir Colin Davis’ recent LSO performance (part of his collaboration with Anne-Sophie Mutter at the Barbican last December). Zagrosek’s opening was dramatic, the Allegro big-boned but not inappropriately so. The second movement was taken at a true Andante. Zagrosek chose a tempo which was absolutely on the line between six beats in a bar and two beats in a bar, and his conducting reflected this (i.e. when he conducted six, it looked too fast; when in two, it looked too slow). With eyes closed, however, the music flowed beautifully and inevitably. Only the not-quite-precise ensemble of the LPO strings meant that the bustling finale, Figaro-like in intent, did not quite achieve Zagrosek’s interpretative aims.

Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex is a true masterpiece: why it is not more frequently performed remains a mystery. Zagrosek directed a full-blooded performance. It was a great pleasure to see and hear the actor Timothy West as the work’s narrator. Wisely choosing to step away from any evocation of the inimitable Jean Cocteau, West fulfilled his function of describing the action (in the vernacular) clearly and commendably.

Throughout the performance, it was Zagrosek’s lucid command of Stravinsky’s score that made this Oedipus such an impressive achievement. His clarity and pacing throughout were of the highest integrity. The American tenor Stuart Neill took the title role, impressive in the cruelly taxing florid lines and displaying remarkable agility. However, despite the excellence of West and Neill, it was the chorus, Terry Edwards’ ‘London Voices’ which stole the show. They brought a monumental quality to the opening chorus’ gravity. Drama was much in evidence elsewhere and their final farewell to Oedipus was most touching. Of the other soloists, Jane Henschel’s portrayal of Jocasta was powerful and commendable. Gilles Cachemaille seemed the weak link, lacking in voltage and, occasionally, volume (he was easily overpowered by the LPO). Franz-Josef Selig’s Tiresias suffered from blandness.

Overall, though, the concert functioned primarily as a timely reminder of the stature of Stravinsky’s genius as manifested in Oedipus Rex.

Colin Clarke


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