After the high spirits of last week’s Beethoven cycle with Bernard Haitink, the London Symphony Orchestra under Russian maestro Yuri Temirkanov had a lot to live up to. Unfortunately, they failed for the most part: they’ve rarely sounded so tired, bored or under-rehearsed as in the first half of the concert, though the second part saw a partial return to form. Technically, everything was in place for the opening piece, Rimsky-Korsakov’s lush orchestration of Mussorgky’s Prelude to Khovanshchina.
But the sound was lacklustre and the conductor seemed hardly to be in control at times. The high tremolo of the first violins and the second violins’ evocative melody shimmered with considerable beauty, but there was no sense of direction. Even the climax with the massive timpani rolls and twisted string harmonies was drab.
On paper, the attraction of the concert was French pianist Héléne Grimaud playing Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. But from the opening bars of the extensive first movement, it was clear that neither she nor the LSO were in especially good form. Grimaud’s constant swooping back of her head reminded me of a synchronised swimmer rather than a concert pianist. Sadly, it felt like she was feigning emotion, more preoccupied by her physical appearance than the sound she was producing.
Certainly the first violins produced more tone than in the Mussorgsky, but the balance of the instruments was surprisingly poor for this exalted band. There were several moments of uneasiness, as if the soloist and orchestra were not quite coordinated, and the horns were shambolic. By the middle of the first movement, Grimaud found greater heft and lyricism in tutti passages, and she produced some nifty finger work in the arpeggiated dominant seventh chords, but the solo cadenza was again self-conscious and affected.The orchestral sunset of the movement was lovely, however, with the LSO showing their best bloom.
The short second movement, which has in recent times been interpreted (perhaps erroneously) as an allegory of the Orpheus myth, was colourless. That Temirkanov chose such a plodding pace didn’t help, because here Grimaud articulated the piano part with grace and elegance, and her emotional depth didn’t meld with the Russian’s solidity. More than one member of the audience was asleep, most of the others were fidgeting, and a gentleman unwrapped a cough sweet in the wake of a massive fit of spluttering in the concerto’s quietest moment.
From this unfocussed second movement came the sprightly finale, played with energy and life, even if it lacked the noble gravity of Haitink’s performances last week. Grimaud’s approach was dexterous, and the strings showed more attack (though they remained uneven). The clarinet and bassoon duet in the closing moments of the piece was the highlight, but nothing could redeem this dull rendition of Beethoven’s most unusual piano concerto.
After the interval, a Temirkanov party-piece was prefaced by a world premiere of a short new overture by Joe Cutler entitled Ulf. Paul Watkins arrived onstage to conduct this latest product of the LSO’s ‘Sound Adventures’ partnership with UBS, the global financial services firm. Sprung on us by surprise, the piece blends loud percussive rhythms with a section of serene beauty, played by the talented musicians at the front desks of the string sections.
The selections from the two Romeo and Juliet Suites by Prokofiev seven from No. 2 followed by three from No. 1 brought the orchestra back to form, even if one could never escape the similarity of most of the pieces to one another. The dances come in two basic types lyric romanza and death march and by the end, one was left wanting something more adventurous than this over-played ballet.
Nevertheless, there was much excitement about the performance. The big brass opening, with snare drum, cymbal and timpani, gave way to the tender violin melody with a sense of drama. Then to the neoclassicism of the ‘Montagues and Capulets’ scene, with dotted rhythms played by a quirky saxophone. The agile violins conjured up ‘Juliet as a young girl’ with ease, whilst the stately lower strings and harp easily brought to mind the episode about Friar Lawrence.
A sensuous rendition of the famous pas de deux music showed off the violas and horns at their best, whilst the trumpet of death blasted forth to bring to mind ‘Romeo at Juliet’s tomb’. The bassoon and cellos had their moments too, in the first two selections from the first suite. And Temirkanov pushed the orchestra to its limits in the ‘Death of Tybalt’, a rousing finale to a curiously mixed evening.