BBC Proms reviews

Prom 57: New York Philharmonic/Maazel @ Royal Albert Hall, London

28 August 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Andy Paradise/Royal Albert Hall)

Incredible as it may seem, the conductor who led this concert with the New York Philharmonic first appeared with them as long ago as 1942. Sixty years after that appearance as a precociously talented 12 year old, Lorin Maazel became the orchestra’s Music Director, a role from which he stands down in 2009. In celebration of their final season together, conductor and orchestra are making a two week tour of Europe, of which this was the first concert.

Being the sort of occasion which justifies the appearance of a new piece of music, one was duly provided. Jointly commissioned by the BBC and the New York Philharmonic, the concert commenced with the world premiere of Steven Stucky’s Rhapsodies for Orchestra, a flowing 10 minute piece with shimmering textures, warm harmonies and strong sense of fantasy. This richly scored work deserves to become a repertoire piece.

This promising opening was followed by a somewhat mixed performance of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F. This is the sort of piece that the New York Philharmonic can play in their sleep, and the first movement was certainly polished, if a little restrained in climaxes. However, the interpretation of pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet remained puzzlingly detached throughout. Just how much so was revealed at the start of the Adagio when Philip Smith provided a poignant, bluesy trumpet solo of such expressive eloquence that the collective imagination of the audience must surely have been transported back to 1920s New York.

Similarly, sublime solos from violinist Sheryl Staples and flautist Robert Langevin made this movement something special. The finale was fast paced and sharply etched but, as before, Thibaudet’s performance seemed eclipsed by the dynamism of the orchestra.

More consistently impressive was Maazel’s interpretation of The Rite of Spring, which he conducted from memory. From the splendid opening bassoon solo, this was a powerfully evocative performance. Maazel’s tempos were often measured, the performance taking some 34 minutes compared to the 31 minutes of the composer’s famous 1960 recording, but tension was maintained by the explosiveness of the orchestral response and a strong sense of primeval forces.

The rapturous response of the audience to the performance of The Rite was met with two encores, the Prelude to Act 3 of Lohengrin and Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No 5, both delivered with tremendous energy and panache.

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Prom 57: New York Philharmonic/Maazel @ Royal Albert Hall, London