Opera + Classical Music Reviews

London Philharmonic Orchestra @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

15 April 2007

Anyone who still foolishly believes that women can’t conduct should go and see Marin Alsop.

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room

Queen Elizabeth Hall / Purcell Room (Photo: Pete Woodhead)

She may still be one of a small minority but, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday evening, the London Philharmonic Orchestra flourished under her taut direction in a programme of Brahms, Britten and Dvork.

If there is one criticism to be levelled at Alsop, it is that her driven, gasping and grunting style can push an orchestra too hard.

The Finale of Dvork’s Seventh Symphony is a tricky beast, and Alsop did lose direction amid the plethora of crashing, richly orchestrated climaxes. It was the previous three movements that provided most to savour. Though the opening Allegro maestoso found much weight in climaxes, Alsop recognised the need for transparent textures to relieve the work’s notorious weightiness. Violin lines were crisply articulated; double basses made sure to withdraw their dynamic. A little more space could have been given to the woodwind, but the players (flautists especially) coped admirably.

It was the Poco adagio that startled. The conductor’s slow burning vision was matched by the LPO’s unsurpassable playing. As Alsop faced the cellos and drew from them the most tremendously shaped phrases with every inflection of her baton, you were aware of being in the presence of greatness. Only a certain textural confusion in the Scherzo‘s Trio section marred a rhythmically propulsive and precisely shaped rendition. But Alsop failed to provide relief from this symphony’s Brahmsian intensity in the Allegro; the stretched tempi and shattering Fortes shredded the nerve.

The playing of the LPO in Britten’s Violin Concerto was no less secure. Their effortless virtuosity stunned, as did the gleaming sheen evident in violins especially. This work demands no airbrushing, however, and Alsop made sure to inject as much drama as was possible into every phrase. The ringing trumpets were consistently thrilling.

I was not so sure about soloist Anthony Marwood. On the one hand he truly captured the stratospheric highs of Britten’s early masterpiece with effortless sweeping legato and attentive phrasing; on the other, his technique was stretched and his sound monochrome. Intonation in the first movement was poor (he stopped to tune at its conclusion), harmonics teetered on the edge and there was a noticeable lack of lyricism in his vibrato-heavy, coarsely deployed bowing. But then I liked the sense of improvisatory freedom brought to the lengthy cadenza where he held the hall enraptured.

And Brahms’ Tragic Overture was a real journey. Alsop provided stupendously transparent textures in the central sections, the march rhythms were clear and engrossing and there was a true sense of progression from A to B. It was the orchestra’s night from start to finish.

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