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S & H Concert Review

Beethoven & Berlioz, Philharmonia Orchestra, Lorin Maazel, RFH, 23rd January 2003 (MB)


Some years ago I reviewed Lorin Maazel in two concerts with the Philharmonia Orchestra; to this day I cannot recollect attending either. Yet on finding the reviews I appear to have given glowing notices of both concerts – Mahler’s 5th and Bruckner’s 8th. This is the first Philharmonia concert he has given in the interim (although given my inability to recall a Maazel performance I may be wrong) and although more than a week has passed since I attended it your reviewer finds it difficult to recollect these performances too. I’ve never had any difficulty remembering a sensational Mahler 2 which he gave with the LSO so I wonder what causes these musical blackouts?

Maazel’s relationship with the Philharmonia goes back decades and this may have something to do with it. Polished though the performances of both the Eroica and the Symphonie fantastique were (indeed, the playing was generally several notches better than that I had heard from Barenboim’s Berliners in two Brahms concerts) the interpretations were both languid and uninspiring, almost, indeed, as if everything was being taken for granted. One could admire the performances for what they were on the surface, but beyond that they were shallow and lacked spontaneity. The Eroica, taken without the first movement repeat, but feeling as if it had been taken, was measured yet gaunt. A fleet performance of the ‘Funeral March’ dissipated much of the rawness of Beethoven’s writing – even the fugal section lacked a certain gravitas. The ebulliance of the Finale was somewhat underplayed.

Berlioz’s epic symphony – a work with which this reviewer has continuing difficulty (almost totally due to the lack of an ideal performance of the work) – wove between tedium and exhilaration. ‘A scene in the Country’ was rather like a trip through the countryside on the back of an ageing pony, whilst his ‘A Ball’ pedalled pedestrian waltzes. ‘March to the Scaffold’ was taken too quickly, yet was exciting even though. Only in the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ did Maazel deploy any Berliozian magic – at moments suitably grotesque and diabolical with appropriately fine Philharmonia playing adding touches to the scene.

I’ve still to be convinced that Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique is as great a work as many people say it is and Maazel’s performance hasn’t changed that perception. Ah, yes perception. Give me an opiate induced interpretation which makes most of Berlioz’ hallucinatory brilliance and your reviewer might in future have no difficulty recalling the details of the performance. As it is, Maazel’s concert seemed the epiphany of an unforgettable hangover.

Marc Bridle

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