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S & H Concert Review

Schubert, Schulhoff, Mozart, R. Strauss: London Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Wednesday October 31st, 2001 (CC).


This was a brave and enterprising programme for a youth orchestra. It was, in fact, the Schulhoff Piano Concerto, Op. 43 that attracted me to this concert in the first place. Schulhoff’s music has been gaining ground over the past few years and it was good to see a youth orchestra championing his music.

Towards the end of his life, Schulhoff was one of the composers held in the Terezin concentration camp. This piece (which dates from the Spring of 1923) embraces the discipline of jazz as well as then-contemporary classical. The mix is more than skilfully managed: in the space of about twenty minutes, Schulhoff embraces jazz, his own proto-minimalism (well ahead of its time), foxtrot and gypsy music within an individual musical language which could nevertheless only have come from the 1920’s. The minimalism I refer to above is not of the Glass/Reich variety. It may be based on repetition of small fragments, but it has a structural, cumulative function in a larger framework: at times, Janácek’s brand of repetition is called to mind, although in a different stylistic context. Jazz makes its presence felt in the second large section of the piece, cumulating in a riotous build-up of sonority.

The soloist, Gottlieb Wallisch was in his element in this piece, and the LPO Youth Orchestra seemed to respond in kind. By a long way, this was the most consistently fascinating experience of the evening. There was a distinct impression that the LPYO thrive on challenges of this sort.

Whether they realise that Mozart and Schubert pose different, but almost insuperable challenges of their own is a point which is up for discussion. Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 (‘Unfinished’) opened the concert. It was presented in a superficial manner, with many faults of ensemble. Most of the blame for this must go to the conductor, Louis Langrée, who was relentless in his approach, particularly in the first movement. More care was needed in the articulation of the accompanying parts: ignore them at your peril, as the resultant effect will be (and was) a lack of depth to the interpretation. Despite some good solo contributions (particularly from the first clarinet), ensemble and balance were problematical almost throughout.

Wallisch returned for a performance of Mozart’s A major concerto, K414. Here was a salutary reminder of how cruelly difficult Mozart really is. An orchestra can, perhaps, bluff its way through Schulhoff, but all of the faults of the Schubert, and then some, were writ large in the Mozart. There was little grace to the opening tutti, and the ‘second subject’ was accorded little wit. Similarly, the last movement (Allegretto) could have been more pointed, from both orchestra and soloist. Wallisch was, throughout, careful and precise rather than tender or characterful as the situation demanded. The orchestra could not keep up with the demands of Mozart’s writing; only in the Andante did they become anything close to stylish.

Richard Strauss’ Tod und Verklärung was possibly the bravest choice of all. The orchestra just fitted onto the QEH’s stage, although at times the acoustic threatened not to take their volume. There was much to enjoy here, from the faltering opening through the excellent oboe and clarinet solos through to the high violins (here rehearsal was evident). Of course, one would have preferred a richer, more truly Straussian feel to the whole, but it was a satisfying end to a concert which, in the Schulhoff, contained at least one memory to treasure.

Colin Clarke

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