Monday 20 April 2009

Beethoven and Brahms from Jordan, the Philharmonia and Vogt

Spending a few cultural days in London, as I'm wont to do, I found myself without anything planned for Sunday evening. I think I had initially intended to have a night off, but when the time came I didn't feel like that. Sadly, nothing much musical was happening at the Barbican (which would have been convenient), but a quick glance at the internet showed an enjoyable looking Philharmonia programme. Sadly, the South Bank Centre has now started piping in music. Walking past the ground floor bar before the concert started, some Beethoven was blaring over a sound system so horribly tinny that it would flatter many a kitchen radio. Please, if anyone at the South Bank is reading this, piped music is awful, for the love of god stop it, or, rather, Pipe Down. But, I digress.

The last time I encountered Philippe Jordan, he was conducting the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester at the 2006 Edinburgh festival for a rather fine performance of Mahler's fifth symphony (I'd post a link to the review, but I haven't got to that point in collecting the archive reviews from that year). This time the concert followed the traditional overture, concerto, symphony model with works from Beethoven and Brahms.

Beethoven's The Creatures of Prometheus was the curtain raiser. (Not too long ago, I heard James Lowe conduct the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in the complete ballet.) Taking a fairly brisk pace, Jordan gave a crisp and energetic reading with the Philharmonia's playing up to their usual high standards.

The chairs were then rearranged to accommodate Lars Vogt, or, more particularly, the piano he was to play Beethoven's Emperor concerto on (the work making its second appearance in my concert going this season, the first having, once again, been with the SCO). It is, perhaps, not the ideal thing to report, but what stood out first and foremost about the performance was Jordan's beautifully judged accompaniment. The orchestra's playing was superb, Beethoven at his dynamic best. Vogt's playing, on the other hand, was not entirely to my taste, but then I am extremely fussy about pianists. He thumped much of the time, striking the keyboard harder, and in a more percussive manner, than I feel necessary. His playing also felt a little rushed and something in the music seemed to get lost as a result: some of the majesty. Surprisingly, then, the slow movement was sublime, with Vogt caressing the ivories as gently as gentle can be. He and Jordan held the tension very well in the transition into the finale (a moment that ought to tease the audience to the edges of their seats and beyond). But then the thumping returned, though not quite with avengeance, as flashes of that delicacy still came through. Of course, as some will note, more than delicacy is required in the work. However, Vogt could take a lesson from the likes of Paul Lewis who can get all the power they need without thumping. The finale was fairly good none the less, not least for the orchestra's rich playing. (Bafflingly, my favourite is not among the four recordings the programme recommends, the more confusing since it features the Philharmonia, conducted by Menges, with Solomon bringing unparalleled majesty.) I'll hear the Emperor for a third, and hopefully final time, this season in June when Lewis plays it with Davis and the LSO. That should be quite something.

The last time I heard Brahms fourth symphony in the concert hall, it was also with the Philharmonia. That was around four years ago, in a concert they gave in the Anvil in Basingstoke (back before I lived in Edinburgh). The conductor was Charles Mackerras so, of course, it was a thrilling tour de force and an extremely hard act to follow. Under Jordan, the first movement cast doubts. It took a long time to get going and didn't have nearly the drive or boiling tension of my favourite performances. However, the final few minutes of the movement were very exciting. The subsequent slow movement was beautifully played. This was followed by a wonderfully energetic third movement and a finale that was nothing short of thrilling. For the most part, then, a very fine performance. The orchestra were, by and large, superb, especially principal flautist Kenneth Smith in his solo. The only blemish was that there appeared to be something a little wooly about the horn sound (not something I would expect from a team who gave such a blinding rendition of Schumann's Konzertst├╝ck for four horns and orchestra at Aldeburgh last year).

Actually, there was one final blemish. As I left the hall, the moron in charge of the piped music had decided to play the third movement of the Brahms. With the Philharmonia's lush tones still ringing in our ears, the last thing anybody can have wanted was this parody.

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