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S & H Concert Review

Beethoven Series, Murray Perahia (pnst), Philharmonia Orchestra, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky Cond, RFH, 5th December 2002 (AR)

BEETHOVEN: Overture, Prometheus
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 8
BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 5, Emperor


Gennadi Rozhdestvensky stood in for the indisposed Wolfgang Sawallisch to continue the Philharmia’s uneven Beethoven cycle. While this veteran Russian conductor has never been particularly associated with the works of Beethoven this concert proved something of a revelation. The Philharmonia produced a far richer string sound under the Russian maestro than they did for Brüggen’s rather etiolated leg of this cycle.

The concert got off with a well measured and well played performance of Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture; the opening bars had grandeur and nobility which immediately arrested one’s attention. There was something so refreshing and unfussy about the conductor’s approach; a kind of stark directness letting the music speak for itself without any mannerisms or irritating tempi fluctuations.

Rozhdestvensky interpreted Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony as a witty 18th century ‘classical’ work, conducting the entire symphony with a rather laid-back leisurely pace, adopting a broad tempo with refined delicate phrasing. After the first movement, which was rendered with great finesse and élan, there was spontaneous applause which the conductor acknowledged with a broad grin and a bow to the audience. In the second movement the Philharmonia woodwind were in their element, producing wonderfully pointed playing while the ‘cellos and double basses lacked the essential weight needed in this humorous movement..

Disappointingly, the third movement – Tempo di menuetto - was rather toned down, with the brass too recessed and soft-focused. The trio section fell very flat with the solo ‘cello accompaniment becoming inaudible, even from where I sat in the centre stalls directly opposite the miming ‘cellist. The fourth movement was very well conducted with strong dynamic contrasts of the orchestral textures. This was generally a very uplifting and inspired account devoid of gimmicks or mannerisms, with the conductor proving to be an assured Beethoven conductor.

Murray Perahia seemed to know Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ so well that it seemed like second nature to him; and that was the basic problem with his clinical performance: he simply sailed through the score with readily apparent, assured ease.

While the first movement was conducted with a firm, steady beat it lacked a forward thrusting momentum and sheer power. The Philarmonia strings were solid and sensitive but the brass and timpani were too subdued and recessed, missing the military sounding aspect of this fiery movement. Perahia played too aggressively and loudly, failing to create any tension and dialogue with conductor and orchestra; he seemed to want to get ahead of the game and leave his players behind him.

Perahia approached the Adagio un poco mosso in a rather harsh, brash and mechanical manner making the music sound sterile rather than profound or moving. The Philharmonia seemed detached and uninvolved here. Perahia’s playing of the last movement seemed like a carbon copy of the first; assured and disciplined but rather mechanical, slick and superficial, but at least here the soloist and conductor seemed more united.

Perahia apart, this was essentially a delightful evening for conductor and orchestra who showed a real mutual rapport.

Alex Russell

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