Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO/Hickox @ Barbican Hall, London

12 November 2006

Perhaps my mood was sour on Sunday evening, but this second night run of the London Symphony Orchestra under Richard Hickox was not a little disappointing.

Both Grieg’s Piano Concerto and Holst’s Planets have been played and played, and neither was energised here with any new insight.

Lars Vogt did try to stamp his mark on the former unsuccessfully while Holst’s masterpiece was often dull, sometimes ugly.

First up though was a short piece by young composer Anna Meredith, who has taken part in Sound Adventures – a joint commission from the LSO and UBS that hopes to find new composing talent. The title of this work, noisy, sounded ominous, and Meredith undermined her abilities before the piece started, noting that, to improve the ending, she kind of made it go on a bit longer. A few lessons on either musical structure or public speaking might not be amiss.

But with regard to her composition, noisy is actually rather fun. It is loud, brash and rhythmic in a John Adams / Harmonielehre sort of way. The violin motifs go on rather, the brass parts boast just one treasure (that funky horn counter-motif near the end) and more well, any modulation is needed. It works as a five minute typhoon of instrumental grandeur, but I see no future over longer stretches for this young woman. She will hopefully prove me wrong.

The concerto was a disappointment, with pianist Vogt not in great form. His opening chords were splayed; his pedalling was overdone, even if it helped disguise some wrong notes. His attempts to find introspection in the first and third movements were tiresome and, at worst, stasis was reached. The first movement cadenza seemed unusually plodding, and when a more dramatic style was needed, Vogt did seem to be hanging on for dear life. Even if conductor Hickox could not time entries adequately, the LSO’s playing provided what drama was to be found. The brass’s roaring third movement was about the best thing in the performance.

And The Planets, while often invigorated, did not impress overall. Hickox’s stupendous, emotionally shattering reading of Mars was the one high-point. Horns were morose throughout (many have noticed recently), but more worrying was the near-shambolic coordination between parts. The sprightly Scherzo of Mercury was spoiled by imprecise entries, while the balance in Jupiter was frankly vulgar. The long-term approach to Saturn did begin to win me back, and the two harps improved as things went on. The solo violin (leader Stephanie Gonley) hovered around pitches in Venus; much better was the solo cello.

The cause was not helped by two audience members in particular: the one who dropped a coin on two separate occasions and the one who spoiled one of the great moments of the concert hall the entry of the ethereal choir in Neptune – by forgetting to switch off his phone. Otherwise, this was not the LSO’s finest hour, and it is telling that, by the end, I was wishing for a little more of Anna Meredith.

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