Opera + Classical Music Reviews

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

2 September 2005

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: David Levene/Royal Albert Hall)

Considering the Concertgebouw rank as one of the world’s top orchestras it was disappointing to see a number of empty seats in the Albert Hall to greet their second Prom of the season. Maybe the apparent paucity of the programme had something to to do with it- just an hour and a quarter of music seemed relatively short shrift for a whole evening.

At which point the saying about quality and not quantity comes to mind, and we certainly had the former in abundance in an exciting performance of Lutoslawski’s orchestral showpiece. The snappy folk melodies that open the Concerto for Orchestra were in evidence immediately from the four bodies of strings as they successively entered, with Mariss Jansons‘ broad arm gestures securing wonderful playing from the woodwind.

The clarity of the orchestra in the quieter music was breathtaking, but always musical rather than just for show. The percussion in particular were superb, taking centre stage at the end of the central ‘night music’ movement with a rapid volley of what sounded like distant gunfire, bringing the hairs up on the back of the neck.

The showy last movement Toccata came off well, too, after a Passacaglia launched in an impressive unison by double basses and harps, unusually sat together. As Jansons brought the piece to an emphatic conclusion the orchestra finished with a flourish, a stunning feat of ensemble.

The Brahms that followed was also extremely well played, but threw up a couple of interpretative issues. The grandeur of the first movement often seemed to be checked by the conductor, as if aware of a homage towards Beethoven. Certainly the master’s influence came through more than ever, the sweep of the strings kept at arm’s length. The third movement, too, could have done with more cut and thrust in its central section, Jansons again happy to keep the orchestra within their limits.

It all depends on how you view the piece of course, as to which approach suits you best, and we were nonetheless treated to exquisite woodwind playing in the middle two movements, from clarinet and oboe in particular, the oboe raised unusually high to project its lines. And when the finale arrived, so did a real sense of drama from Jansons, whose tempo choices proved spot on, giving the big tune all the room it deserved.

As a bonus we got two encores, a Brahms Hungarian Dance and the Farandole from Bizet’s second L’Arlesienne Suite, both realised as showpieces by the orchestra, conducted with abandon by Jansons. It was easy to forgive him for not showing such freedom in the symphony, and even inspired some of the audience to clap along to the music – a sure sign of the quality of the music making.

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