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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Debussy, Ravel, Sibelius: Ana-Maria Vera (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Takuo Yuasa (conductor), RFH, February 4 2005 (AR)

Ostensibly, the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s popular programme of war-horse classics didn’t seem to inspire surprise, but under Takuo Yuasa’s direction these works sounded astonishingly fresh and newly minted. The London Philharmonic Orchestra responded warmly to his baton, playing with precision and panache throughout the evening.

Claude Debussy’s La Mer is often mistreated as a flashy showcase for virtuoso orchestras but here Yuasa enticed the LPO to play with chamber-like intimacy and a delicate transparency. The opening From dawn to Midday at Sea was contemplative and distilled, perfectly evoking the twilit atmosphere; the muted trumpet captured the pearly grey mist of the sea at dawn. Often this movement is played far too loudly, sounding congested and over inflated, but here all the orchestral detail shone through radiantly. The Play of the Waves was just that with Yuasa conjuring up translucent textures and buoyant rhythms. The mood shifted in the concluding Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea with the opulent LPO increasing in intensity and drama but never drowning out (pun intended) the fine orchestral details in the climaxes. It is difficult to imagine a more atmospheric, dramatic and sensitively played La Mer.

Pianist Ana-Maria Vera’s reading of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G can only be described as bland from beginning to end. Her playing was typical of the sewing- machine school of pianists: monochrome and mechanical, devoid of poetry or passion. Vera’s phrasing in the opening passages of the Allegramente was clipped at the edges with the notes sounding fragmented and snatched. Throughout, her pedestrian playing had more to do with athletics than aesthetics, with muscularity replacing musicality. In stark contrast, the orchestral accompaniment was full of character and poetry, with some noticeably exquisite harp playing and chirrupy woodwind solos. Her anodyne playing of the Adagio assai was harsh and hard-toned, lacking the grace and poignancy required and only the sensitive playing of the LPO saved us from complete boredom. In the Presto again the LPO played with spirited character and great aplomb serving even further to emphasise Vera’s dullness of tone and sterile phrasing.

Takuo Yuasa proved a supreme Sibelian, conducting the composer’s First Symphony with a total grasp of its structure and a strict adherence to the score whilst also securing the chilling mood of the authentic Sibelius sound.

The Allegro, ma non troppo was beautifully measured, opening with an arrestingly chilling clarinet solo. As the music unfolded and the pulse quickened, Yuasa drew out sharply etched and taut rhythms from the strings, contrasting starkly with the lyrical harp accompaniments. The timpanist is an important component throughout in driving this movement forward and Simon Carrington played with admirably incisive bite. Yuasa conducted the Andante with great feeling and understanding, penetrating the quasi-romantic dark depths of the score as I have never heard before. In contrast, the witty Scherzo had a lilting grace, the woodwind solos in particular being played with great aplomb. Like the first movement, the opening of the Finale was measured and brooding, the cellos’ playing with a grinding, grainy weightiness. Yuasa slowly built up the tension and energy, with rich, lush strings striving towards the unfolding climax, culminating in Carrington’s dramatic timpani strokes followed by a quiet roll dissolving away to silence.

A packed house showed their appreciation for this glowing performance, and a self-effacing conductor was at great pains to ensure that his plaudits were shared by the orchestra. I hope to see Mr.Yuasa with the LPO again very soon – they work well together.

Alex Russell

Further listening:

Claude Debussy: La Mer; Saint Saens: Symphony No. 3 ‘Organ’; Ibert: Escales - Boston Sym. Orch.; Charles Munch (conductor): RCA Living Stereo 3-channel SACD 82876-71387-2, 73:

Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto in G, Concerto for Piano left hand in D major; Jean-Phillipe Collard (piano); Orchestre de France, Lorin Maazel (conductor): Emi Classics Encore: ADD CD: 74749.

Jean Sibelius: 1st Symphony, 6th Symphony: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan (conductor) EMI Classics CDD 7 63896 2.

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)