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Selected Review


Orchestral

The Zurich International Orchestra Series

Edward Clark

Cadogan Hall

On the day, Thursday March 1, President Putin threatened the West with nuclear annihilation I attended a wonderful concert at Cadogan Hall, London, continuing this season’s impressive Zurich International Orchestras series, by the Russian State Philharmonic Orchestra under its long-time maestro, Valery Polyansky.

The repertoire, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, was expected for a touring orchestra but the performances had exceptional merit. To open, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet was given a splendid sound, deep in the string sections and bright in the brass. Polyansky obtained a thrilling reaction in the loud climaxes and the reappearance of the great tune was heart rending.

Valentina Lisitsa is a bit of an internet media star but her playing of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto was anything but glitzy. She gave an astonishingly virile performance, though not lacking softness when needed. Not only a true virtuoso she is also a superb communicator of the myriad set of feelings conjured up by the great Russian composer. It was sheer pleasure to sit and bask in her approach, forceful when needed, powerful in her cadenza and beautifully expressed in the gorgeous slow movement. The finale was truly exciting and by the end all the audience wanted was to let off steam with a huge “bravo”. And so did I!

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony received another splendid performance. Russian musicians don’t overdo th e overt romanticism in this music; they play it straight whereas Western orchestras/maestros tend to overegg the sentiment. Here it was like standing by a waterfall full of fresh spring water as opposed to a sweetie factory producing Mars bars.

Polyansky opened with a spacious fanfare, brightly lit by the brass section and continued with a well-controlled exploration of Tchaikovsky’s psychosis that allowed him to produce this most autobiographical symphony of his set of six.

The playing was wonderful too, exuberant when needed, virtuosic in the very fast scherzo and sublimely triumphant in the finale where the opening motto theme reappeared in fierce some style.

By the end I thought I understood Tchaikovsky much better thanks to this interpretation by Polyansky and his excellent orchestra. If only musicians ruled the world! Not since I attended Stokowski’s last London concerts have I witnessed such a reorganisation as demonstrated in the concert given by the SWR Symphonieorchester, Stuttgart conducted by Sir Roger Norrington on March 16th at Cadogan Hall. Using reduced numbers, Norrington had wind and brass divided equally and standing behind the centrally placed strings with basses and cellos at the back and violins prominent at the front. This took some getting used to.

In all all-Beethoven concert, The Creatures of Prometheus Overture, went with the customary dash expected from Norrington’s penchant for speed in this repertoire, causing no alarms among the assembled musicians. In the Third Piano Concerto the soloist, Francesco Piemontesi, displayed wonderfully clear textures and a buoyant sense of style in a work that can often get bogged down in Beethoven’s serious C minor mood. The slow movement was poised and kept on the move and the finale was positively Mozartian in sparkle and panache. His encore, Brahms’ Op 117, no 1 was an entrancing interlude of spacious reflection.

For the Eroica Symphony, all the earlier attributes of speed, finesse and sparkle came to be the undoing of this extraordinary work, one of the great game changers in music, surely deserving a certain deference of approach. Here Norrington seemed content to breeze through the music with a smile on his face unaware of the seriousness behind the notes he was interpreting. Indeed, he was besotted in his quest for haste throughout, which denigrated Beethoven’s vision of gravitas and grandeur. By encouraging applause between movements Norrington was almost mocking Beethoven in this work. To cap my frustration, he held a pause of a minute after the elation of the scherzo before allowing his players their heads in the joyful explosion of sound heard at the beginning of the finale.

The whole performance, despite superficial excitement, was a dispiriting experience, denying the Eroica Symphony the stature it deserves. The wonder was the excellent way the orchestra obeyed its maestro’s wishes!

In the regretted absence of the intended conductor, Per Altrichter, two other conductors, one British, Ben Palmer and one Czech, Jan Chalupecký took over these two concerts played by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra on Monday, April 16th and Wednesday April 18th April.

The concert programmes remained the same, each containing a Schubert symphony, a Beethoven piano concerto and a Dvorák symphony. Two different conductors bought forth different orchestral layouts with Palmer choosing to divide his violins, with cellos and basses well to the back on the left side of the conductor. Chalupecký was conventional in his layout.

Palmer’s skills are based on close observance of dynamics and the overall shape of the music. These allowed immediate focus on the familiar Unfinished Symphony by Schubert where the great opening melody assumed a truly spiritual aspect, calm yet dignified. The Andante con moto that followed flowed effortlessly and gave comfort, knowing of the composer’s perplexity of what to do after writing these two opening movements. With such power of imagination and depth of expression it seems he concluded it best to leave alone and move onto the next work. Palmer’s performance gave credence to this outcome.

The young Russian-born Pavel Kolesnikov played Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in an entirely satisfactory manner, with neat finger work and plenty of air between the notes, no rushing his fences as some do in this adorable work. The first two movements with their grace and composure intact, allowed the soloist to offer plenty of excitement in the vigorous finale, the entire performance aided by the attentive baton of Palmer and his splendid musicians.

The new partnership proved well worthwhile in Dvorák’s wonderful Seventh Symphony, not heard regularly these days in our concert halls. The first of his truly mature symphonies (although surely no 5 is equally divine in its inspiration), this work offers evidence of Dvorák’s growing depth of symphonic thought. Palmer certainly accepted it as a work deserving the closest attention to detail and phrasing. From the ominous opening to the closing ambiguity as to whether the composer chose tragedy or triumph Palmer was master of the often-changing atmosphere inherent in this stirring work. It was also a pleasure to hear the timbre of the woodwind and brass, so individual in sound and now alas lost to many modern orchestras around the world.

Schubert’s adorable Fifth Symphony opened the second concert under the watchful baton of Jan Chalupecký, an experienced conductor from the Prague National Theatre. It received the attention it deserves as anyone familiar with Beecham’s way with this music can testify. It may be early Schubert but it packs a punch of delicious momentum and melody that is impossible to resist in such a performance as heard here; singing strings and piquant winds all added to our pleasure.

From non-intrusive early Schubert to the grand eloquence of the Emperor Concerto was quite a shock to the senses particularly as played by the now veteran (although still youthful in appearance with fashionable long hair) virtuoso, Barry Douglas. His effective opening, not heaven storming but seemingly trying to compose the music as it grandly declares itself, gave a clue to the most wonderful impression of a pianist at one with the composer, instead of being at odds. The effect was one of grandeur in the music making department lodged in the imagination. It is rare to hear such oversight of a composer’s wishes such as we experienced here. To witness the rebirth of an over-familiar masterpiece was a pleasure and a privilege.

The last work also is over-familiar, perhaps, Dvorák’s New World Symphony, but hearing it played by the composer’s native musicians under the baton of a home-born maestro was the best way to grasp the intentions of the home-sick composer. While non-Czech players and conductors emphasise elements to do with Dvorák inserting local folk melodies and giving the natural exuberance full reign, here the intentions were to de-stress the foreign accents and offer the listeners hints of the native (Czech) flavours that envelope this work. The cor anglais melody in the slow movement is too often played as a solo item but here it received a calm, integrated rendition that was insuperably moving. The brass was not overpowering in the many passages of splendour Dvorák invokes and the climaxes throughout were balanced in such a way that inspired a loving acceptance rather the usual assault on our senses. The whole experience allowed a reappraisal of this most graceful and well-intentioned work; a gift from the New World yes but also a message of absorption of a symphonic style that far transcends the often trotted out mantra of a work containing tunes packaged up without much genuine ability. Not so here I am delighted to say.

Could the Bruckner Orchester Linz actually perform Mahler’s mighty Resurrection Symphony, No.2 in the confined spaces of Cadogan Hall, London on May 3? Boasting a player compliment of 128 musicians, most of whom were needed in this Mahler concert, I somehow doubted it before arrival.

By the end, in a blaze of radiant E flat major sound, I was spellbound by my experience throughout this hugely ambitious work. Rather than constraining the sound, the hall, which used to be a church, seemed to, first, absorb and then project the waves of sonorities in such a way as to allow details that are usually obscured in more cavernous surroundings to be heard almost crystal clear.

This quality of sound enhanced what was a well-prepared and delightfully spirited account under the baton (sometimes batonless) of Markus Poschner, still quite young but now, as Chief Conductor, overseeing this orchestra playing both in concerts and as the opera orchestra at the Landestheater Linz.

A number of highlights stand out; the niggling deep strings after the ferocious opening became obsessive, undermining the attempt at relaxing into the quieter second subject; then we heard the beautiful cello melody entering into the opening section of the second movement rising above the string accompaniment and sounding as if there was not a care in the world; the sudden timpani crash opening the third movement without hesitation shook a few unwary members of the audience as it was designed to do, a marvellous, dramatic moment. The work seemed to grow before our ears at the solemn moment the alto soloist (Theresa Kronthaler, in splendid voice) entered for her Urlicht movement, Ever would I prefer to be in heaven, before the entry into the extended finale where all hell was rightly let loose at the encouragement of Poschner. Here the orchestra displayed a marvellous ability to seem to lose control of all emotional reason so fierce were the episodes of what Mahler called the confusion of life. The soothing entry of the chorus and soprano (Brigitte Geller in radiant voice) transported the musical narrative onto a different level, nothing less than the Last Judgement. Mahler’s vision is both melodramatic and sincere when played with such conviction as here. The mighty orchestral and choral forces rose as one to conjure up a world of beauty and glory, the final destination for which Mahler rightly leaves to his orchestra alone, leaving the words Rise again, yea, you shall rise again ringing in our ears.

This was a peroration befitting the standing ovation that greeted the assembled performers and their inspired maestro. For me the amazement was as much the quality of the sound throughout as the saving of my immortal soul, grateful as I was nevertheless!

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