The Stations of the Sun Grieg
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16 Strauss
An Alpine Symphony, Op.64
Olli Mustonen (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
The Stations of the Sun
Friday, November 15, 2002 Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Last season, the London Philharmonic featured Kaija Saariaho as its Composer in Focus a cachet enjoyed this season by Julian Anderson. At 35, he has already assembled an impressive catalogue of orchestral and chamber works, three of which are being included in LPO concerts.
Completed in 1998, and premiered at that years Proms, The Stations of the Sun takes its title from Ronald Huttons cyclical study of folk customs. The seasonal nature of these rituals is reflected in the four-part design of Andersons work. Whether or not he had previously conducted the score, Daniel Hardings was a confident and coherent realisation. The syncopation of the initial scherzo passage were crisply delivered, while the free-flowing variants on the chant-like violin melody that follows had a warmth which eluded previous performances. Harding gave prominence to Alleluia Adorabo though, unlike other composers, Anderson employs plainsong with some subtlety. The climactic evocation of Easter bell sounds and all was vividly wrought, and Harding had kept enough in reserve to ensure the sustained coda capped the piece impressively.
It was in these final sections that Midsummer Marriage Tippett came unmistakably to mind suggesting that, though Anderson may profess a dislike of aspects of the English pastoral tradition, he has gone some way here towards a personal reinterpretation of it. Certainly the audience response, cordial if hardly effusive, gave a sense of being comfortable with the ethos of the work.
The real shock came in the performance of the Grieg concerto that followed. From his very first premature and inaccurate entry, Olli Mustonen seemed intent on avoiding any of the warhorse qualities associated with this work. The problem was his skittish, fragmented approach to rhythm and phrasing, coupled with his shallowness of tone across the keyboard. This undermined the lyrical and emotional qualities that define the works character. Only in the Adagio and the flute-led interlude of the Finale was there even a hint that Mustonen might divest himself of his interpretative hair-shirt and allow expression to come through unimpeded. Harding accompanied gamely, but there was no mistaking the frequent difficulties in ensemble co-ordination and balance.
It was salutary to read his biographical details: "For Mustonen to follow traditional interpretations unthinkingly is uncreative, but every bit as uncreative is the performance that seeks only to be different." Hoist by his own aesthetic, methinks.
Some years ago, Harding made a notable if uneven impression in a performance of Strausss Ein Heldenleben. Whatever else, this evenings account of An Alpine Symphony was nothing if not lucid in its traversal of the works musical highs and lows. The nocturnal gloom from which it emerges, and to which it returns 50 minutes later, were scrupulously realised as to their harmonic density; indeed, clarity and focus were very much in evidence throughout with the arrival on the summit duly nerve-tingling, and the visceral impact of the storm the more impressive for the palpable sense of unease which preceded it.
Impressive as a sustained stretch of orchestral writing and, occasional patches of sharp intonation aside, the LPO was eloquent in its response the Alpine Symphony is rather less remarkable on the level of sheer musical invention. Indeed, the generalised expressiveness of much of the continuity between its highpoints often runs the risk of banality a failing that Hardings interpretative restraint did something to offset, but little to nullify. More worryingly, the penultimate Ausklang (End) section had little inherent sense of transfigured calm emerging as a contented, even self-satisfied review of principal themes and motifs. Without a sense of Nietzschean striving and falling-short of its own aspirations, Strausss orchestral magnum opus cannot escape being a magnificent travelogue the overbearing nature of its expression carrying the seeds of its own destruction.