Pre-performance publicity billed Debussy as the main attraction of this concert and in hindsight it was an accurate guide.
Certainly it was with Debussy that the London Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of guest conductor Mario Venzago, really shone, although two iconic works by Elgar and Beethoven were gratefully received.
Debussy’s La Mer is frequently described as his most impressionistic (or Impressionistic, depending on the interpretation) work. Each of the three movements From Dawn to Noon on the Sea’, Play of Waves’ and Dialogue between the Wind and the Sea’ suggest something as direct and ephemeral as a visual sketch, and successfully capture both the threat and allure of the sea in an episodic format. These characteristics were well realised by the maximal forces of the LPO, Venzago directing with an impressive balance of power and control.
Following this, Elgar’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra in E Minor seemed less memorable, although considered alone it was a satisfying performance. As ever in this piece, the soloist’s approach was clearly stated in the opening bars, and for Scandinavian cellist Torleif Theden this meant emphasis on the theme of introspection rather than on the evident anger of the piece. It proved a polite and restrained account, and while Theden brought sensitivity to the cello role he hinted, too strongly perhaps, at resignation. Throughout, however, the LPO offered taut orchestral accompaniment.
After the emotional power and sheer orchestral scale of these two twentieth-century works, Beethoven’s Symphony 5 in C Minor couldn’t have inspired the same sense of fear and rapture that E.T.A Hoffmann described after witnessing its premiere in 1808, but it was an impressive performance nonetheless. Venzago’s podium style is idiosyncratic, and occasionally a little precious, but if his approach to this piece lacked raw passion, it benefitted from his unquestionable style and polish.
It was surely coincidence that this concert fell on the eve of the D-Day anniversary but its evocations seemed wholly appropriate: sea themes, a haunting recollection of World War I and then the opening victory motif that heralded BBC news bulletins throughout World War II. Even without these (perhaps fanciful) connections it was an intense and thought-provoking evening.