Tuesday 21 April 2009

Vogt/Philharmonia/Jordan, 19 April 2009

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven – The Creatures of Prometheus, op.43: Overture
Beethoven – Piano concerto no.5 in E-flat major, op.73, ‘Emperor’
Brahms – Symphony no.4 in E minor, op.98

Lars Vogt (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Philippe Jordan (conductor)

Throughout this concert, the Philharmonia was on splendid form. If I sometimes entertained doubts concerning aspects of the interpretation, especially during the inner movements of the Brahms symphony, then that detracts in no way from the orchestral performance. A fierce opening chord announced the beginning of the Prometheus overture, showing that fierceness need not equate to ugliness. The following introductory material granted Beethovenian grandeur its due, leading into a nicely pointed, notably balletic reading. At times, I wondered whether this edged a little close to Rossini, somewhat in the manner of Schubert’s Sixth Symphony, but I should not wish to make much of this. The Philharmonia’s strings under Philippe Jordan showed that incisiveness need not be at the expense of glowing warmth, whilst the timpani – thankfully without the hard sticks that have become so fashionable in some quarters – made its presence properly felt rhythmically and harmonically.

The opening of the Emperor concerto was a little disappointing, Lars Vogt’s opening flourishes proving far from flawless. By the time of his next entry, he appeared much more settled, as did his ensuing passagework. The basic tempo was fastish, but not absurdly so, and a full sound was obtained from an orchestra whose size was respectable but far from large (twelve first violins and so on). Woodwind again sounded marvellously keen. Martial rhythms were always well pointed, making me wonder whether the General might have been a better nickname for the work. The orchestral sound was throughout well balanced – which does not mean what some seem to think, namely emasculating the strings – and the piano impressively weighty where required. Vogt and Jordan were not afraid to vary the tempo and did so successfully. The only exception was the resumption of a swifter pulse for the recapitulation, which might have been better prepared, coming as something of a jolt, partly because the texture sounded somewhat thinned, neo-Mozartian even, at this point, an unfortunate conjunction. Nevertheless, the slowing for the second subject here was most convincingly achieved. A melting slow movement brought an almost Chopinesque cantilena to Vogt’s line, with warm orchestral response. Elfin, Mendelssohnian woodwind were on fine form. The transition to the finale was beautifully handled, save for a noisily disruptive audience contribution. Then rhythmical security once again proved key, underpinning the music’s forward propulsion, without sounding hard-driven. Bassoon (Robin O’Neill) and horn (Philip Eastop) were especially worthy of mention for their solo contributions. My only relative disappointment was that orchestral fire, especially in the tutti sections, was not always quite matched by that from the pianist – though one should remember how awkward Beethoven makes the soloist’s task here.

The Philharmonia’s ranks swelled a little for Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, the first violin section becoming sixteen in number, with other strings in proportion. One could certainly hear a richer, deeper string sound from the very opening. The Philharmonia’s woodwind proved especially adept at bringing out that all-important interval of the third, which, Webern-like, provides the generative force for the entire first movement. Jordan’s tempo seemed close to ideal and he proved perfectly willing to yield where appropriate. The recapitulation proved considerably more impassioned than what had gone before; whether this was an apt climax or an undue contrast, pointing to a prior lack, was not entirely clear to me. In either case, the Philharmonia’s musicians played their hearts out for Jordan. The second movement is marked Andante moderato but here I simply felt that Jordan’s tempo was too fast. At least there was little harshness, save for a few sterner moments, and the basic pulse yielded at times; however, for me at least, there is a greater darkness to this music than this neo-Schubertian graceful processional would allow. The following Allegro giocoso seemed to me misconceived. Never have I heard it sound so triumphant; it appeared to be acting as a surrogate finale, rather than a gruff preparation for the real thing, which needs to sound truly earned. There was great energy to this reading but it did not quite seem properly applied. The great finale received a highly Romantic performance, not only in terms of its gorgeous orchestral tone – Kenneth Smith’s flute solo was truly exquisite, as were the Philharmonia strings – but also displaying a greater sense of what was at stake. It was implacable but never frenetic, flexible whilst maintaining a sense of line. Jordan’s tempo variations were sometimes very marked but usually well handled, if leading perhaps to a more episodic view than the very greatest accounts from the recorded past (which are not, of course, without such variation). Still, it was a highly dramatic finale both to the symphony and to the concert.