Editor: Marc Bridle
Webmaster: Len Mullenger
Seen and Heard Concert Review
Janáček, Brahms, Dvořák, Joshua Bell (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra/ Sir Charles Mackerras, Royal Festival Hall, Thursday 24 June 2004 (AN)
Janáček Taras Bulba (23 mins)
I was in no mood for humouring
as I took my seat at the Royal Festival Hall:
the Euro 2004 ‘England v Portugal’ football
match was on and I was missing it. In hindsight,
I might have squirmed just a little bit harder
in front of the television, though admittedly
the unholy alliance of a distressing performance
by star soloist Joshua Bell and a less than
convincing Janáček opening item took
a heavy toll.
Given Mackerras’s prowess in
all things Czechoslovakian – the distinguished
conductor studied in Prague and is defined
by his specialisation in the Czech repertory
– Janáček’s Taras Bulba was disappointing.
However, it was less the fault of the meticulous
baton than of complete disregard for it: with
the exception of the ‘Death of Ostap’ middle
movement, a perturbing lack of textural cohesiveness
and dynamic contrast made a poor spokesperson
for the violent subtext of this loosely programmatic
conception. Of course, there were successful
passages in the outer movements, and none
more so than the culminating bars of ‘The
Prophesy and the Death of Taras Bulba’ which
delighted in spectacular, full-bodied entries
against a subtly emerging organ.
The Brahms Violin Concerto
that followed is not one to dwell on. Joshua
Bell is a brilliant violinist and it was therefore
extremely painful to watch him fall flat on
his face. Immediately obvious was an affected
overacting that attempted to hide technical
insecurities: the zeal of Mr Bell’s histrionics
made no contribution to either sound or fingerwork.
The Allegro non troppo and Allegro giocoso
witnessed finger-fudging and missed notes
but most disturbing was the soloist’s tense
posture and firmly-clamped fist that suffocated
the Gibson Stradivarius’s voice-box, induced
poor intonation and caused regrettable casualties
to the bow – bruised and battered by the end
of the first movement, it collapsed across
the fingerboard but was lucky to salvage a
few hairs at all by the end of the concerto!
Half time could not have arrived
sooner, and what followed was second to none.
Here was the Philharmonia we all know and
love. Mackerras, with his finger on the pulse,
conjured the Dvořák to perfection. The
playing was energetic, incisive and emotional.
A fluidity of tempo rested naturally on the
authentically inflected orchestral tongue.
Violins stood a fraction ahead of the crowd
and propelled forward the relentless momentum
Singing out bravely their heartfelt
theme, the violins charmed the Adagio and
set an example for the nostalgic return in
the cello section. This movement was not without
surprise however, and Mackerras directed daring
trespasses into sinister territories and sinful
blues dissonances. Nothing stopped the tightly
knit Philharmonia from attacking head-on the
challenges of Dvořák’s
manipulative score. Mackerras hit a sexy syncopation
in the midst of the feisty Scherzo with a
flick of his right hand and the orchestra
danced with him.
The Finale was at first hazy
and then gradually gained definition, taking
the almighty form of a whole host of textures
and ideas that at one point pitted cheerful
violins against sobering brass statements.
And all this inner mayhem geared towards an
explosive finish. Beats a penalty shoot-out