Monday, 3 December 2007

Lupu/Philharmonia/Muti: Beethoven, Schumann, Mussorgsky, 2 December 2007

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven - Overture: Die Weihe des Hauses, Op.124
Schumann - Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
Mussorgsky (orch. Ravel) - Pictures from an Exhibition

Radu Lupu (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Riccardo Muti (conductor)

This celebratory concert, long sold out, marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of Riccardo Muti's first engagement with the (New) Philharmonia Orchestra, which also culminated in Pictures from an Exhibition. After the great success of that concert, Muti was immediately signed up as Principal Conductor. Thirty-five years might not be the most significant of anniversaries, but as a pretext it serves well enough.

The Beethoven overture was well performed, though not unforgettable. At times the orchestra was driven quite hard, but never breathlessly, and there was greater flexibility in Muti's reading than his Toscanini caricature would have one believe. The brass was probably the strongest part of the orchestra, with the strings sounding at times a little watery in tone.

Radu Lupu is a far from frequent visitor to London concert halls, rendering the prospect of hearing him in the Schumann concerto rather mouth-watering, not least since his self-imposed exile from the recording studio. For a concert mounted in Muti's honour, this was very much the soloist's show, with Muti and the Philharmonia largely relegated to an accompanying role, following the sometimes extreme variations in Lupu's account. Some passages were truly magical, never more so than when, defiantly un-score-bound, Lupu pulled the tempo right back to what seemed akin to half of what would be expected, in sections of the first movement. Such rêveries were truly heart-stopping, although at other times phrases seemed almost casually tossed aside. Some of the orchestral detail was beautifully etched, the quieter passages having the virtue of truly making one listen. The lower strings sounded wonderfully German during the second movement. This was an interesting if not utterly coherent performance.

However, the second half presented what sounded like a different orchestra. The marriage of precision and colour was staggering, as was the sharpness of characterisation. Sometimes I have entertained doubts as to whether Ravel's orchestration adds anything to the piano original; here such questions never occurred. I have never heard a superior account of Pictures from an Exhibition and offhand, can only think of Carlo Maria Giulini as matching this. The sheen of the strings and the variety of woodwind coloration might have taken one's breath away had that honour not already been granted to the astonishingly assured Philharmonia brass. This exhibited all the prowess of Chicago, yet without the slightest hint of brashness. Muti imparted a true sense of progression and unity to the work, though this never clashed with the individuality of each movement, in which great instrumental virtuosity was exhibited. 'The Market at Limoges' was a veritable Babel of activity, whilst the mysteries of the Paris catacombs duly chilled. The 'Great Gate of Kiev', pealing bells and all, seemed an inevitable culmination rather than a final distinct picture. Ravel returned with interest the crucial Russian influence upon early twentieth-century French music. The dividends accrued from Muti and the Philharmonia's performance were, if anything, greater still.