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S & H Concert Review

Stravinsky, Mozart: Maria João Pires (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra/Yan-Pascal Tortelier. Royal Festival Hall, February 13th, 2002 (CC).

Bernard Haitink, originally due to conduct this concert, sent a personal note (reprinted in the programme) stating that ‘owing to the burden of my current workload, I have decided to withdraw from this concert’. The substitution of Yan Pascal Tortelier led to a concert of very mixed blessings.

The programme itself was in essence intriguing and rewarding. Some careful thought had gone in to its layout: on one level, Pulcinella and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9, ‘Jeunehomme’, were linked by a prevailing freshness of invention; on another level, the two Stravinsky pieces framed and contextualised the Mozart (in particular, the slow movement of the Jeunehomme emerged as radiantly beautiful after the acerbic wit of Pulcinella). Had the prevailing standard of execution been high, this would have been a very satisfying evening’s listening.

As it was, Pulcinella brought with it a sense of disappointment. To make its point, this score requires razor-sharp precision of rhythm and ensemble coupled with a perfectly balanced realisation of its orchestration. The one thing it is not is a warm-up piece, but that was the impression that came across. Stravinsky’s ‘take’ on the Commedia dell’arte, with the composer hanging his hat on Pergolesi’s head, is meticulously crafted and scored. Unfortunately, the scrappiness of the Sinfonia rang all the wrong sorts of bells, an impression followed up by rough oboe solos (very insubstantial low notes), dulled accents (in the Toccata especially) and ensemble frequently (and annoyingly) just out. The highlight came with the Duetto for trombone and an astonishingly nimble double bass (positioned next to the first desk of cellos).

A smaller orchestra assembled for the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 9, but it might just have well have been a different one entirely. Perhaps the very presence of Pires was enough to bring out their sprightliness (despite Tortelier insisting on relentlessly conducting the opening tutti in four, not even relaxing into two for the contrasting themes). Pires is, indeed, a true Mozartian. It seemed fitting that her understated dress sense seemed to reflect her selfless service to the composer. She exhibited quixotic reactions to Mozart’s shifts and was at no point less than illuminating: one even sat in wonder at the evenness of her Alberti basses! Her cadenza to the first movement was breathtakingly beautiful. The speed chosen for the Andantino seemed on first (orchestral) acquaintance rushed, yet when Pires entered it seemed completely natural. Perhaps she was more convinced of it than Tortelier. The beauty of this movement was the perfect foil for the finale with its gallant interposed Minuet.

As if London needs another Rite of Spring … Having heard a good number of them over the last few seasons I am beginning to wonder if there isn’t something addictive about this piece. On each hearing there seems to be more to discover, and maybe there can never be enough performances: surely an indicator of greatness?. Metzmacher, Chailly and Mariss Jansons have all heeded the call, and each has had at least something to say (some more than others).

Tortelier has an individual way with the Rite. In both of the Introductions to the two parts, Ravel was distinctly brought to mind: there was certainly no mistaking the fact that the première had taken place in Paris (at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in May 1913). Indeed, Tortelier brought a Gallic transparency to the LPO’s playing that not only enabled much detail to shine through, but also enabled the listener to marvel anew at Stravinsky’s melodic and contrapuntal mastery. There were links to the Stravinsky of Firebird, too, as Tortelier brought out a sensual, fairy-tale, post-Rimsky element that is rarely acknowledged amongst all those primal forces.

Rough edges did appear, however, and sometimes in unfortunate places: there was a careless wind entry which scuppered the magical preparation for the ‘Auguries of Spring’, for example.

Here was a reading that had its roots in the ballet stage rather than the concert hall and which, because of that, might be thought to be lacking in barbarism. The accents of ‘Auguries of Spring’ came less from a pre-civilisation Russia, more from a Covent Garden matinée; the unstoppable tread of the ‘Ritual of the Ancients’ was not as inevitable as it might have been; finally, the savagery of the ‘Sacrificial Dance’ was tempered by the spirit of the dance and was certainly not the edge-of-the-seat experience it can be.

That said, there was so much fascinating detail assailing the senses that my attention did not slip throughout the Rite’s duration. Interesting how both Yan Pascal Tortelier and Paavo Järvi, both sons of prominent musicians, are carving out their own distinct personalities on the concert circuit at the moment. Indeed, both are striking out on their own paths with remarkable confidence (see my review of Paavo Järvi’s concert in the same venue in October 2001 with the Philharmonia). I hope next time Tortelier conducts it is not in the place of an indisposed conductor and that he is given adequate rehearsal time for his needs: it certainly sounded, to my ears at least, that Pulcinella suffered considerably in this respect.

Colin Clarke

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