Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Philharmonia/Luisotti @ Royal Festival Hall, London

22 January 2009

Under the baton of Nicola Luisotti, the Philharmonia Orchestra’s performances of two Russian masterpieces saw power and clarity take precedence over subtlety and allusion.

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

But if, like me, you took to the resulting sound then this concert had a lot to offer.

Even the programme’s one Italian piece, Verdi’s Overture to La forza del destino, characterised the evening’s overall style of playing. The opening notes from the brass were clean and precise, whilst the strings responded by creating a great rippling effect.

If, however, the wind delivered the most beautiful melody (instantly recognisable as the ‘theme tune’ to classic film, Jean de Florette), the strings sounded harsh in contrast. The sound may have been crystal clear, but the most powerful passages felt severe. This was not necessarily a bad thing, but it meant that the subsequent flute, oboe and clarinet solos (the latter accompanied by the cellos) came as a welcome relief.

As soloist Boris Giltburg joined the orchestra for Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23, there was something theatrical about the way in which he attacked the opening, his whole body rising as he crashed down on the keys. In contrast, the accompanying strings seemed timid, as if in too much awe of the soloist to do more than support him on the most basic of levels. The resulting sound was not displeasing, but in this meeting of brilliant pianist and world class orchestra it felt as if the latter had simply ‘given way’.

Sometimes the thought that Giltburg put into placing the short notes felt tangible, as if each were precise to a hundredth of a second, whilst on other occasions he achieved a more lyrical sound. Also in the first movement, the wind contrasted well with the piano whilst the boldest passages produced a wonderful crashing effect.

The remainder of the concerto also saw Giltburg dominate as he danced through the D major theme in the second movement’s central prestissimo, and then appeared in the final movement to plunge to the shimmering depths of the piano before rising to hit its most ethereal high notes.

In direct contrast, the orchestra came into its own in Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 in B flat, Op. 100. With the first movement achieving a strong balance in sound between the strings, brass and wind, the second possessing an ‘impish’ quality, the third prevailing with its sheer power, and the fourth featuring some violin playing that appeared almost mechanistic, this performance could hardly have been bettered.

Anyone attending the concert to witness Giltburg in action would not have been disappointed, but the overall standard of performance of the Tchaikovsky would have to be qualified by the excessive subservience of the orchestra to the soloist. Nevertheless, when combined with a superb performance of the Prokofiev, I doubt anyone left the auditorium feeling short changed.

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