It’s anyone’s guess as to how the London Philharmonic’s principal guest conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin would have handled this programme of works by Ravel, Prokofiev and Stravinsky: his usual vigour and exploration of inner detail were sorely missed after he was forced to bow out due to illness.
In his place concert organisers brought in the Russian-born American conductor Mikhail Agrest. He had already directed the LPO in place of Nézet-Séguin two days earlier, so lack of preparation time couldn’t really be blamed for a rather pedestrian reading of Ravel’s ballet Ma Mère l’Oye (‘Mother Goose’). Coming a couple of years before Daphnis et Chloé, score is full of sumptuous touches – charming melodies, measured rhythms and brilliant orchestral flourishes. Yet in the hands of Agrest and the LPO it sounded like a mechanical rather than a magical music box. Orchestra and conductor plodded through the first half, both seemingly uncertain of each other. A flicker of inspiration arose during the ‘Empress of the Pagodas’ movement, with its Javanese-influenced tonality and metallic percussion, but overall there was little deftness or subtlety in this performance.
Both orchestra and conductor might as well have gone for their break during Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1, leaving soloist Leila Josefowicz to go it alone. It was very much she who led the piece, while Agrest and the orchestra did little more than mark time. She made smart work of all three movements, shifting effortlessly from the exquisite, even pained, lyricism of the opening ‘Andantino’, through the rugged central scherzo, to the final hushed ‘Andante’. It was a performance steeped in intense concentration, but one which also found space for teasing good humour.
What saved the LPO and Agrest from second rate oblivion, was a top notch performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Perhaps it was an understanding that a work of this stature – featuring so prominently in the South Bank’s The Rest is Noise season – required special treatment which galvanised conductor and players. Whatever the reason, their reading came across as bold, energetic and rigorously disciplined. The middle dance episodes were particularly effective, with savage stomping and animalistic champing from the strings almost stealing the thunder from the percussion. Agrest proved particularly good at calling forth the brass, and at highlighting the underlying woodwind lines. The final flute breath of the sacrificial ‘chosen one’ could have hung on for a second longer, but by then everyone needed a sigh of relief.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk.