Opera + Classical Music Reviews

London Philharmonic Orchestra @ Royal Festival Hall, London

16 January 2008

Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden’s debut with the London Philharmonic Orchestra was eagerly anticipated, but the event proved to be a bitter disappointment.

If it had not been for Emanuel Ax‘s polished playing of Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto this concert would have been an unmitigated disaster.

Emanuel Ax is undeniably one of the finest pianists of his generation.

He brought poise, intelligence and wonderfully nuanced playing to this early Beethoven work. The effortless playing of the virtuoso cadenzas made the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand on end, and I could have listened to him play all night. The man is a genius, and he was given a wonderful, deft accompaniment by the band.

After the interval however, the performance of the Fifth Symphony showed that too many conductors are jostling to put their stamp on Mahler’s great symphonies, and in the process Mahler’s music is being side-lined in favour of the pompous egos of certain maestri.

Enough is enough. Mahler is becoming so ubiquitous in London’s concert halls these days that familiarity will begin to breed contempt. It’s virtually impossible these days to cross the musical road without some juggernaut of a conductor on board the Mahler bandwagon running you over. At the Barbican we’re at the mercy of Gergiev’s Mahler Cycle, whilst it seems barely a week goes by without Mahler’s colossal 3rd Symphony being performed somewhere in London. I’d like to hope it was all good PR for Mahler, but after this concert under Jaap van Zweden I felt the urge to never listen to a note of his again.

Why? Because van Zweden was so hell-bent on stamping his interpretation on the work, poor Mahler barely got a look in. Things started well with Paul Beniston’s clarion trumpet call ringing through the auditorium with proper gravitas but then van Zweden demanded a massive ruabto before the first shattering tutti chord which made me think for a second that I was listening to over-orchestrated Puccini. I am totally aware that the main theme of the first movement is a funeral march, but the tempo for this was so slow that ultimately tension sagged, and the whole piece threatened to grind to a halt. In the second movement tempestuousness was mistaken for vulgarity and volume, whilst John Ryan’s horn playing in the third sounded out of sorts, and who can blame him with such waywardness on the podium?

The Adagietto had slightly more finesse than might have been expected, but any atmosphere was ruined by the bizarre noises that the conductor was making – a kind of weird sucking in of air all the way through the movement. Combined with his cartoon-like posturing, gesticulating and the occasional leap in the air off the podium, the whole symphony became a test of endurance. I couldn’t wait for the last chord, and I never thought I’d hear myself say that of my favourite symphony. The performance was recorded for the LPO label. I don’t envy the recording engineers one jot.

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