Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LPO/Alsop @ Royal Festival Hall, London

16 January 2009

Marin Alsop puts the London Philharmonic Orchestra through its paces with an eclectic programme which includes two coruscating scores from the 20th Century.

Mozart’s infrequently heard Piano Concerto 22 in E Flat also receives an airing with Jonathan Biss as soloist.

Marin Alsop is one of those conductors who seems far more at home in the 20th century orchestral repertoire than in the Classical, so it should come as no surprise that whilst she revelled in Ravel, the performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto 22 was the least satisfying part of her judiciously chosen programme with the LPO.

It’s a long time since I’ve seen such a large orchestra assembled for a Mozart concerto, six cellos and four double basses is fighting talk where I come from, and when you add a healthy dose of violins and violas the string sound becomes overtly plush for this particular pair of ears. I prefer my Mozart on the lean-side, but whether it was the sheer amount of string players or Alsop’s inability to keep them on a tight rein, the balance with soloist Jonathan Biss often went awry.

Technically his playing was faultless but he seemed disengaged with the performance as a whole which led to a sense of monotony in the Andante, but things livened up considerably in the final movement when there was a far greater sense of homogeneity with the orchestra and conductor. His cadenzas were top notch.

After the interval we were treated to two shattering performances of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chlo Suite 2 and Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite. Composed only six years apart both require glittering orchestral playing and pin-point accuracy, which the LPO duly provided. Few composers knew how to write for an orchestra as sumptuously as Ravel, and no other piece displays his faultless talent for conjuring up vivid orchestral colour than his Daphnis and Chlo Suite 2.

Alsop sustained tension from the ravishing depiction of sunrise, a marvellous crescendo replete with forest murmurings, bird-song and shepherd’s pipings through to the orgasmic sense of rejoicing at the end, coaxing wonderfully evocative playing from the huge forces at her command. The cumulative effect was thrilling, with all sections of the orchestra giving their all, whilst the particularly scintillating solo flute playing from Adam Walker stood out amongst many notable solo contributions.

From the barely audible entrance of the cellos and double basses at the start of The Firebird Suite, it was evident that Alsop had a firm grasp of Stravinsky’s idiom. She led the orchestra through a rip-roaring performance, pulling out all the stops for an exhilarating ‘Infernal Dance’ and brought the work to a spine-tingling climax. Hair-raising stuff indeed!

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