Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Philharmonia/Maazel @ Royal Fetival Hall, London

2 April 2009

Southbank Centre

Southbank Centre (Photo: India Roper-Evans)

It’s 50 years since Lorin Maazel first conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra, and this concert formed part of a short series programmed to celebrate the anniversary.

In addition to works by some of his favourite composers, the concerts also include compositions by Maazel himself.

It was originally intended that the series would feature the three concertos Maazel composed in the 1990s. However, Julia Fischer, who was due to have performed Maazel’s Music for Violin and Orchestra at this concert, had to withdraw due to ill health. Maazel’s purely orchestral Farewells was performed instead.

Commissioned by the Vienna Philharmonic in 1999, Farewells features a vast array of instruments, including piano, harmonium, celeste, ratchet, siren and four Wagner tubas. Maazel describes it as his response to the threat of nuclear weapons, the destruction of the ozone layer and other negative consequences of human activity. During its 27 minutes, it charts a relatively uninviting course, the journey marked with piercing brass exclamations, glissando strings, and discordant march episodes. A Mahlerian hammer blow makes an appearance towards the end. All this was brilliantly played by the Philharmonia.

It’s possible that Farewells would have seemed more inviting had it not followed Faur’s subtle and luminous Pellas et Mlisande. The four movement suite received an exquisite performance, with notable solo contributions from flute, cello and horn, and a breathtaking purity from the strings. Maazel conducted with his usual precise and elegant baton technique.

The second half of the concert featured an intermittently successful interpretation of Sibelius’s Second Symphony. Conducting from memory, Maazel led a strongly contoured and well played performance, the violins in particular offering up playing of unusual depth and expressiveness. On the negative side, a sense of onward momentum was distinctly lacking. The first two movements, although featuring many impressive episodes, often seemed ponderous, and the Vivacissimo third movement was superbly articulated but lacking tension.

Things were better in the final movement, the performance gradually gaining momentum and intensity as it progressed. The closing pages were excellent, the accuracy and power of the brass thrilling in their impact.

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