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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Beethoven, Violin Concerto and Schubert, Symphony No.9, “Great”, Vadim Repin (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra, Riccardo Muti, Royal Festival Hall, 30th January 2005 (MB)


Riccardo Muti famously claimed after being appointed Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra that he was going to tear down the Klemperer sound (a surprisingly radical statement for a conductor who is largely reactionary). He didn’t entirely achieve that – although his successor did; but what this magnificent concert did stand for was vintage Philharmonia playing, the like of which I have not heard for many years. Perhaps it was the conservatism of the repertoire, perhaps the orchestra’s evident delight at having their old conductor back, or perhaps just good old-fashioned magic, but the effects were startling. The strings had sumptuous depth, the brass an accuracy that was breathtaking and the woodwind a luminosity of phrasing. Both works were typically polished – a Muti and Philharmonia trait – but neither performance lacked drama, and in the case of the Beethoven conductor and soloist lived dangerously.


Repin and Muti gave an epic account of Beethoven’s great violin concerto: at 50 minutes in length it had extraordinary breadth, but it also had a faultless sense of pacing. Repin is something of a towering figure, and his sound is equally towering: tonally, he has more in common with a Szeryng or an Oistrakh than a Menuhin or a Heifetz, and Muti and the Philharmonia were able to absorb into the orchestration an unusual weightiness to counter-balance the violinist’s large sound, even with a familiar reduction in the orchestral parts. Technically, Repin was superlative (with only a single, slightly misplaced finger in the first movement drawing any attention to the fallibility of his playing). Musically, this was a performance which had Romanticism written all over it, and one in which virtuosity was controlled (some might argue over-controlled). The upside of this was that Repin was able to add sufficient space between the notes to project a sense of radiance; towards the bridge of the violin his finger placement had razor sharp clarity, and yet the sound was so full and focused. If the first movement had an inevitable pulse to it, it did not quite prepare one for the distilled purity of the Larghetto. Here Repin was broad – very broad – and were it not for his ability to involve the listener so directly it would surely have floundered. The serenity and purity he captured was breathtaking. A sense of daring evolved slowly in the Rondo: Allegro, but only after a magical opening in which Repin’s violin emerged with almost diaphanous beauty above some of the sparsest cello and bass playing I have heard in this work.


Schubert’s Ninth closed this concert, a work this reviewer has always tended to avoid over-hearing. Even in a performance as outstanding as this, one is still tempted to agree with George Bernard Shaw’s assessment of the symphony: “… it seems to me all but wicked to give the public so irresistible a description of all the manifold charms and winningness of this astonishing symphony and not tell him, on the other side of the question, the lamentable truth that a more exasperatingly brainless composition was never put on paper.” [The World, 23 March 1892]. Muti’s conviction in the work is unquestionable, and with a great orchestra it can sometimes sound a ground-breaking work, even if it does lend itself to ‘heavenly length’ in less capable hands. The first movement does digress into repetition and redundancy – a typical Schubertian trait – and this exposes weaknesses that a greater symphonist – such as Beethoven – would have avoided (though the development is clearly tight, and the climax doesn’t fizz out as Schubertian climaxes tend to). Muti does not attempt to rescue the symphony’s failures, but he does bring a spiritual monumentalism to his performances of the work, and this one with the Philharmonia Orchestra was no less exceptional for that.


Even allowing for the fact that Muti does not add exposition repeats in either of the outer movements, or the second repeat in the Scherzo, this was a relatively fast performance, often brisk and occasionally electrifying. In the first movement, Muti did not over-indulge Schubert’s scoring with a momentary tenuto before the second subject, and nor did he pull back in the coda (as Bernstein used to notoriously do); instead, he gives the movement’s close a proper sense of apotheosis. The slow movement was both wintry and Italianate, an evocative solution that makes the march-rhythm less dominant than it can sometimes feel. Largely, Muti and the Philharmonia were exemplary with dynamics (there was some gorgeous pianissimo playing), though one would have preferred a more cogent sense of space and balance between the trombone and horn calls in the Scherzo (though, notably, Muti does give the solo trombone towards the close a sense of unique splendour). The triplets of the final movement’s Allegro vivace were quite magnificently articulated by the Philharmonia, but it was the shock of the coda which added true gravity to this performance. The rasp of the horns and trombones Muti captured well, but it was the sheer desolation of the four repeated string chords which brought a thunderous conclusion to the work. The weight the Philharmonia strings summoned up was cataclysmic lending genuine expression to Schubert’s terror of death.


Muti is an infrequent visitor to London, and even though this concert was one designed to open the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Philharmonia Orchestra, it is clear his stature as one of today’s greatest conductors remains undiminished. This was world-class music making and I hope Muti will return to the Philharmonia with a little more frequency than he has so far done.


Marc Bridle


 


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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)