Opera and Classical Reviews

Prom 65: Brahms – Symphony No 1; Lutoslawski – Concerto for Orchestra @ Royal Albert Hall, London

2 September 2005

Considering the Concertgebouw rank as one of theworld’s top orchestras it was disappointing to see anumber of empty seats in the Albert Hall to greettheir second Prom of the season. Maybe the apparentpaucity of the programme had something to to do with it- just an hour and a quarter of music seemedrelatively short shrift for a whole evening.

At which point the saying about quality and notquantity comes to mind, and we certainly had theformer in abundance in an exciting performance ofLutoslawski’s orchestral showpiece. The snappy folkmelodies that open the Concerto for Orchestrawere in evidence immediately from the four bodies ofstrings as they successively entered, with MarissJansons‘ broad arm gestures securing wonderfulplaying from the woodwind.

The clarity of theorchestra in the quieter music was breathtaking, butalways musical rather than just for show. Thepercussion in particular were superb, taking centrestage at the end of the central ‘night music’ movementwith a rapid volley of what sounded like distantgunfire, bringing the hairs up on the back of theneck.

The showy last movement Toccata came offwell, too, after a Passacaglia launched in animpressive unison by double basses and harps,unusually sat together. As Jansons brought the pieceto an emphatic conclusion the orchestra finished witha flourish, a stunning feat of ensemble.

The Brahms that followed was also extremely wellplayed, but threw up a couple of interpretativeissues. The grandeur of the first movement oftenseemed to be checked by the conductor, as if aware ofa homage towards Beethoven. Certainly the master’sinfluence came through more than ever, the sweep ofthe strings kept at arm’s length. The third movement,too, could have done with more cut and thrust in itscentral section, Jansons again happy to keep theorchestra within their limits.

It all depends on how you view the piece of course,as to which approach suits you best, and we werenonetheless treated to exquisite woodwind playing inthe middle two movements, from clarinet and oboe inparticular, the oboe raised unusually high to projectits lines. And when the finale arrived, so did a realsense of drama from Jansons, whose tempo choicesproved spot on, giving the big tune all the room itdeserved.

As a bonus we got two encores, a BrahmsHungarian Dance and the Farandole fromBizet’s second L’Arlesienne Suite, bothrealised as showpieces by the orchestra, conductedwith abandon by Jansons. It was easy to forgive himfor not showing such freedom in the symphony, and eveninspired some of the audience to clap along to themusic – a sure sign of the quality of the musicmaking.

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