Over the past months, a number of reviews of the Philharmonia concerts at the Royal Festival Hall have suggested an orchestra in the peak of condition. Therefore, whatever the merits of this or the other interpretation, I had expected something rather special in the playing when they came visiting to Leicester this time. Even so, in the event I was not fully prepared for what I heard from them under the Slovakian conductor Juraj Valcuha, making a welcome return to Leicester. They began with Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta ,long a favourite work of mine when I need cheering up, but hitherto never heard by me in a concert hall.
Well, expectations were more than fully realised. From the off the cello section dug into the sensuous opening theme with astonishing gipsy fire and so it continued. The woodwind sparkled , piccolo( Keith Bragg), flute (Samuel Coles) oboe (Tom Bloomfield) all had their moments in the sun. However, it was Mark van de Wiel (clarinet) who stole the limelight with passages which invited the player to sound as if it all was being played on the hoof and not from a score. Here and elsewhere the conductor one guessed had a crucial role in encouraging these great instrumentalists to play as soloists, whilst keeping everything around them together. Decades ago, that was one of the things that marked out the great Sir Thomas Beecham from so many of his contemporaries and which gave as I remember all too well his performances such a sense of spontaneity . Of course, you need brilliant players to do that and the present day Philharmonia certainly has them. For instance, one listened with gasping admiration at the whole string section’s precision, unanimity and fullness of tone, maintained sometimes at speeds which in any other context would have been thought bordering on the reckless. It was simply breathtaking.
Also, having been in the RFH recently, the performance highlighted the wonderful acoustic of the DMH, rich yet also precise, something which the London concert hall struggles to deliver. All of this left me wondering why such a joyous work is not played more often. Perhaps it is thought too much of challenge, certainly as a first work in a programme. Also, perhaps it does become ever so slightly repetitive in the middle. However, the last few exhilarating pages on this occasion conclusively blew such thoughts away.
After the interval we had more from the same Hungarian stable, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, first performed in 1944, a year before his death. In the 1950’s this was the first ‘modern’ work I heard in the concert hall, with this orchestra, then less than a decade old and conducted by the then idol of London, Herbert von Karajan. At that time in my far distant youth I had heard mostly music by long dead Germans. I knew vaguely that there were still people alive writing music in the here and now but from hearsay they were writing stuff any sane person would not wish to listen to. Bartok’s name figured very prominently in that group so I was astonished to find that in this work at least it was clearly possible that modern composers were worth listening to. As is the way of the world it was, of course , derided by a few who saw it as evidence of the composer’s retreat from modernism . Now ,of course, it is a masterpiece(!) and indeed it is, and can be seen in its sardonic wit, its dramatic changes of mood, in the range of its sonic world, and in its roots in folk music as quintessentially Bartok.
In this instance, it was given a performance which was masterly in managing those rapid shifts in mood. Some years ago, on his debut in Leicester, I thought Juraj Valcuha clearly a fine musician but on that occasion perhaps lacking that something special which really rivets the attention. That was certainly not the case here. This seemed music which he lived, relishing detail upon detail, whilst in no way losing the impetus to keep the work together. It can so easily become a series of moments which don’t quite coalesce but here time and again the fire at the centre of the work was memorably conveyed.
In the middle of this eastern European sandwich was Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto, featuring a pianist new to Leicester, the Bulgarian Evgeni Bozhanov. His was a performance which had some fine qualities. Playing the DMH’s Fazioli seemed to enable him to present many features of the work with a clarity which often surprised this listener. Whereas perhaps a Steinway often bestows a bloom on a series of notes, here it was quite startling and refreshing at times the way even in fast passages each note had its own shape. This gave the performance almost a Mozartian poise which often seemed appropriate to the music.
However, there were losses as well. I think I remember Paul Lewis saying that, because it was such a bridge between the 18th. and 19c., this concerto presented for the interpreter the greatest problems of any of Beethoven’s five piano concertos. The programme pointed out that Beethoven had moved on from the forte piano to a more powerful instrument and that the concerto reflects its range. It was perhaps the forward looking features of the music that were not reflected fully in some moments of this performance. This was felt particularly in the lyrical slow movement which could have had more of a romantic richness and bloom. Though there were cool beauties on the way, the warmth tended to come from the orchestral accompaniment. It might have been interesting to hear the performance on the RFH’s Steinway the following day to gauge how much, if any, of a difference it made to the interpretation. One can forget that, unless they are very wealthy and /or slightly dotty like the great 20c. Italian pianist Michelangeli who allegedly travelled with four pianos, pianists unlike other instrumentalists very often have to play on unfamiliar instruments. Whatever, there was more than enough in this performance to look forward to hearing this artist again.