Yes, there were a fair few shorter items on the programme at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Wednesday evening, but this was no sporadic selection of favourites.
Rather, Vladimir Jurowski led the London Philharmonic Orchestra through an intelligently designed and very well delivered mix of Debussy, Honegger and Saint-Sans.
No beloved popular classics here, but instead an enticing collection of mini (or not so mini) masterpieces that provided great pleasure throughout.
Best of all was Saint-Sans’ Fifth Piano Concerto – a spicy, melodious and engaging taste of Egypt that has yet to find its way into the collective heart. Soloist Artur Pizarro could not retain a transparent, unclouded texture while trying to be weighty, but much more successful were his dappled probings, weaving in and out of the LPO’s clear-as-glass textures.
The Molto allegro final movement took the breath away: Pizarro displayed astonishing stamina and technique, with not one note out of place and every bar tingling with irresistible Eastern spice. Yet would the performance have thrilled so much without Jurowski’s weighty yet nimble reading? Even when combating the piano’s hysterical runs in that last movement, the orchestra found enough space to place and project every line, with the first violins in particular producing the purest tone; standing astride Pizarro’s pointed virtuosity like a dream.
Jurowski also excelled in Debussy’s Rapsodie for alto saxophone and orchestra: I cannot imagine a more perfectly judged interpretation. The languorous jazz rhythms and lush Impressionistic sweeps toppled over one another, evoking the ecstatic clubs and dingy backwaters of 1900s America. Martin Robertson on the alto saxophone coloured his instrument’s tone well, though notes tended to trip in faster passages. More troubling was the lack of personality that he brought to the work. No stratospheric, inebriated highs here, but rather a reading that was overly measured, not a little cautious. And jazz is no place for caution.
Similarly questionable was the harp playing of Rachel Masters in Debussy’s Danses for harp and string orchestra. Her touch was firm, but she struggled to produce such cascading brilliance on the instrument as the composer calls for: it often seemed monochrome. Vladimir Jurowski’s performance of Honegger’s Fourth Symphony was much better. Especially successful was the Larghetto, with its macabre woodwind lines stupendously played, while the LPO milked the final Allegro‘s Shostakovichian beats, brass caterwaulings and scrubbing string motifs for all their worth.
Add to that a dreamlike rendition of Honegger’s Pastorale d’t (all swooning cellos and cosy horn harmonies) and you have a truly memorable concert.