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S & H Concert Review

Busoni, Piazzolla, Milhaud, Respighi; Theodore Kerkezos (saxophone); London Philharmonic Orchestra; Roberto Minczuk (conductor); Royal Festival Hall, 7th November, 2003 (AR)


Whilst the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s programme was devoted to an evening of colourful ‘culinary classics’ the performances themselves demonstrated that so called ‘light music’ can be given incisive and vigorous interpretations. This was largely due to the stylish and sensitive conducting of Roberto Minczuk, Co-Artistic Director of the Säo Paulo State Symphony Orchestra of Brazil.

The concert opened with a novelty – the audience were allowed to choose between hearing dances from Alberto Ginastera’s ballet Estancia, or Ferruccio Busoni’s Turandot Suite. When an LPO percussionist announced Busoni as the winner he stated that when the orchestra was asked what the composer’s contribution to the twentieth century was they said: ‘tinned ravioli’!

From the opening bars the conductor established an intensely tranquil mood but with an underlying nervous tension, which the LPO played with delicate sensitivity. Notably suave was the eloquent timpani playing of Simon Carrington. In Nocturnal Waltz the strings played with a hushed sedateness. The performance was bathed in a delicate aura of subdued sounds which is what gave this performance its elusive magic, taking the music beyond its mere notes. The concluding march for the executioner’s procession had all the requisite sinister and menacing quality.

Astor Piazzolla’’s flamboyant Tango Suite for saxophone and orchestra was arranged by the evening’s soloist, Theodore Kerkezos. Piazzolla reinvented and revitalised the tango in what became know as ‘nuevo tango’ and this could be heard here. Other hybrid influences included ‘40’s smoky bar ‘lounge music’, ‘50’s Mantovani and ‘60’s Bossa Nova all consciously coated in an overtly camp kitschness. The conductor approached the score with great passion, stressing the relentless, throbbing sensuality of the tango rhythms. What let the performance down was the perfunctory and standardised playing of Kerkezos whose saxophone sounded somewhat sour.

After the interval we had Darius Milhaud’s Scaramouche for saxophone & orchestra, again with Kerkezos as soloist. The conductor conjured up an evocative and elusive atmosphere of light, frivolity, grace and charm, all bathed in a Marseille light, especially in the central section which reminded one of Albert Marquet’s tranquil sea-front paintings. Rather unexpectedly, Kerkezos transformed himself here - sounding like a different musician altogether - and played with the panache, warmth and character that was so lacking in the Tango Suite.

The highlight of the evening was an extraordinarily musical account of Ottorino Respighi’s popular showpiece Pines of Rome. Often this culinary score can just sound bombastic but under Roberto Minczuk’s highly sensitive and majestic direction it sounded like first-rate music.

The opening Pines of The Villa Borghese had the appropriate sparkling light and festive celebration conjuring up a scene of children playing in the park with great verve. By contrast, Pines near a Catacomb was sparse, serene and calm tinged with melancholia as evoked by the solemn chords in the lower strings accompanied by sedate trombones. What followed were a sublimely played off-stage trumpet (which is strikingly reminiscent of the distant trumpet solo in the third movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony) and a subdued piano solo that segued perfectly into the following part.

What lets The Pines of the Janiculum down is the composer’s use of ‘real’ sounding nightingale chirps which sound Disneyesque. This also had the effect of clashing with the exquisitely played long, rubato clarinet solo (which also imitates quasi-bird sounds). Luckily in tonight’s performance the birds were well recessed but it still sounded as if some birds had been let loose into the RFH! The glittering arpeggios for celeste, harp, and piano also made this section so atmospherically radiant.

In the opening of The Pines of the Appian Way Minczuk conjured up a brooding, sinister scene of misty dawn with great precision. He perfectly judged the subtle and gradual built up of tension with the pounding march rhythms gradually increasing in dynamics and intensity building up to an inexorable climactic cacophony of shattering sounds, especially from the blazing horns, Wagner tubas and bass drum.

This was certainly one of the most atmospheric and poetic accounts I have heard of this score since Toscanini’s and the closing passages with the relentless nailing timpani were strikingly similar in sheer intensity to Cantelli’s ‘live’ (25.12.1954) Boston Symphony account. What made this concert rather special was the sense of magic, mystery and poetry Minczuk extracted from his superb players and his artistry directly recalled maverick magicians like Furtwangler, Stokowski and Celibidache.


Alex Russell



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