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S & H Concert Review

Saariaho, Bruch, Berlioz; Joshua Bell (Violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Louis Langrée (conductor); Royal Festival Hall; 5th November, 2003 (AR)


The French conductor Louis Langrée is largely known for his work as Music Director of the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York as well as being Music Director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège. He established great rapport with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, who played immaculately for him, although what made this concert so extraordinary was the way Langrée negotiated the notoriously dry and recessed Royal Festival Hall acoustics: the LPO had great clarity, weight and forward projection; a rare thing here.

The concert opened with the UK premier of Kaija Saariaho’s Song for Betty written in celebration of the 80th birthday of patron Betty Freeman, who was in turn one of the supporters of the commission of the composer’s opera ‘Love from afar’. Saariaho based her five-minute Song for Betty on its closing scene. The composer’s sound world is truly unique and no other composer seems to echo her scores. Time in music is uncannily deceptive and no more so than in Song for Betty which seemed to drift on into eternity. The subterranean sounds give the sensation of coming from a great distance but being unsettlingly close at the same time, shattering space and time. The orchestral textures were cool, refined and distilled, creating a sense of claustrophobic vastness, with the music hovering and shimmering in a sea of sadness, devoid of movement, suspending sound in time itself. An extraordinary and disturbing experience, which was very sensitively conducted and played.

What made Joshua Bell’s refreshingly visceral playing of Max Bruch’s popular Violin Concerto in G minor, Op. 26 so miraculous was that he made the work sound so much better than it really is. Bell’s multiple tones defy easy description, for his playing is paradoxical: it has a rugged refinement and ordered anarchy. Throughout the performance Bell would turn his back to the audience and observe the LPO, becoming both totally immersed in their playing and complementing them.

The famous romantic theme of the Adagio (which you can hear exactly repeated note for note in Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony) was stripped of the usual trite sentimental lyricism we often hear. Instead we heard subtle playing where the sounds became thin shards of mirror-like, melting light with a beautifully graded intonation. The Finale: Allegro energico was just that: energetic with Bell throwing himself into the music, producing an extraordinary range of sounds from a seductively rough, deep dark tone to a brilliant razor sharp lightness. This last movement is often played too slowly and Langrée’s fast tempi were perfectly judged matching Bell’s white-hot energy and drive.

Bell goes beyond mere virtuosity for the sake of it; he can do that with ease. What makes Bell a truly great artist is his risk taking and desire to take the notes to the limit: a spellbinding performance that the audience clearly appreciated in their enthusiastic ovation.

Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique was given a pristine and polished interpretation by Langrée but one that seemed for the most part to lack a sense of characterisation and occasion. The opening Dreams were almost too measured to the point of dragging and sounded more like being in a coma. With Passions things improved, with the throbbing pulse of the LPO ‘cellos and double basses producing a weighty and deep ruggedness. While Langrée secured taut buoyant rhythms and superb playing from the LPO there was no sense of magic or emotion.

In A Ball, Langrée produced rather heavy textures and lacked grace though the woodwind and four harps played with pointed precision and style. The Scene in the Country seemed to drag on eternally and came across as flat footed and ponderous, though again the strings played with polish and concentration: this scene simply lacked imagination with the essential characterisation of a ‘performance’. Yet the cor anglais solos were truly eerie as were the menacing timpani rolls, incisively played by the three timpanists. Hard sticks in the March to the Scaffold had a powerful and extraordinary effect further emphasised by suitably rugged playing from the strings

The conductor was a little better in the Dream of a Sabbath Night which had a little more drama and tension with the LPO woodwind playing with a cutting shrillness, evoking ghoulish laughter. The snarling trombones and horns were also quite outstanding. But this work is more than a mere showcase for virtuoso orchestras and somehow an element of the macabre was missing here.

However, the blood curdling ending for the full orchestra was given extra weight by the timpanists bringing this rather clinical account to a sensational conclusion with two thudding bass drums.

Alex Russell



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