Opera + Classical Music Reviews

London Philharmonic Orchestra @ Royal Festival Hall, London

15 December 2007

This thoughtful programme presented works concerned with the past and the future.

Southbank Centre

Royal Festival Hall (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring famously provoked riots at its premiere, its barbaric harmonies and rhythms unprecedented, jolting music into an uncertain future.

Yet the work, in opposing traditional musical values, points also to a distant, pre-historic past, when music came not through notation but from the natural earth.

Here, Marin Alsop‘s interpretation suffered from an occasional rigidity of rhythm, a lack of ebb and flow, that could lose from the music its naturalistic, organic quality. Though the briskly alternating sections in both Parts One and Two were suitably contrasted, the switches of mood and tempo could be uncertain, Alsop’s athletic conducting style occasionally providing not enough rhythmic clarification where it was most needed. Yet this same conducting superbly underlined the disconcerting angularity in Stravinsky’s score, and if the performance lived dangerously, it was all the more exciting for it.

The long, elastic crescendo of Part One was excellently judged, concluding with the most animalistic, brutal orchestral thrashing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra; Part Two’s long slower passages dragged one to the depths of tragic intimacy, though Alsop’s tempi were such that stasis could threaten to peer into the performance. Throughout, however, the LPO played with fire and precision, the febrile woodwind at the opening especially of note. If there was something calculating about this interpretation, it was at least calculated to excite.

Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto is no radical statement, as is the Stravinsky, but its individual musical language seems, as the programme notes, both tied to the past and vital to the future of American music. Colin Currie, the solo percussionist, ably demonstrated the concerto’s worth, rushing from instrument to instrument, dodging Alsop’s endlessly gyrating body and a forest of microphone stands. He played with great virtuosity and great colour, opening the concerto with hushed, humming marimba drones and relishing the contrast between the work’s virtuosic outer sections and dappled, elusive centre. His antiphonies with the orchestral percussion were arresting in their violence, the machine gun dialogue reminiscent of the combating timpanis of Nielsen’s Inextinguishable symphony or, indeed, of the sparring soprano queens of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. Throughout, Currie made not one wrong move, even in the fiendishly difficult cadenza, and Alsop provided characterful, ebullient orchestral accompaniment.

Yet the concert’s opening work, Vaughan Williams’ neo-modal Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, was possibly given the finest performance, the strings’ lush, rich tone melded to Alsop’s sweeping, lyrical view of the work. The dynamic range was vast; the violin, viola and cello solos sang; the whole was meltingly lyrical and seemingly illuminated from inside. It was transcendental musicianship, and very much to the credit of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

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