The Philharmonia Orchestra not much older than the RFH - was in fine fettle, needing all its intrinsic sense of ensemble to read Gergievs directions. Anticipation of him conducting Birtwistle had a last-minute diversion; Valade has a fine reputation for more difficult things. Good there was something British Birtwistles two-and-a-half minute Fanfare grew from a cymbal mist to a shattering, resonating gong stroke with characteristic brass energy and expression for a jubilant and proud opener, industrial percussion in attendance (and some Gawain clip-clops).
Bright I said. With extra lights turned to full between items with half-a-dozen arias there are a lot of betweens - the spotlight on artists entrances and exits appeared superfluous; perhaps needed for the TV cameras? I also said noisy well, Gergiev certainly whipped-up Verdis overtures. He has his reputation for conducting Russian opera, but elsewhere I find him wanting. Its not a question of his being consistently raucous; its more to do with his obviousness. There was plenty of quiet playing especially in the Beethoven and Schumann but also a lack of focus and a predictability of gesture. The Verdi overtures lyrical music was short-breathed and harried; the grandstand finishes blatant, the RFH a temporary bandstand. Gergievs penchant for noise, bustle and lurching accents leaves me wondering what the fuss is about. I recognise that his music-making pulsates with emotional communication, that the overall sound he produces has ardour; but to my ears its applied and lacks that all-important depth of response, a focus on the musics core and building outwards from it.
The programme itself was an odd one. After the splendid Birtwistle, Force of Destiny would have been fine, then Schumann, the arias to close, well, Brittens Young Persons Guide - something colourful, resourceful, triumphant, a showcase for the Orchestra, something nationalistic covering the centuries (i.e. back to Purcell) and, with its educational premise, a pointer to the next generation of RFH subscribers.
There was also the curiosity that the soloists seemed to have extra volume given them; their sound appeared to be positioned a little higher and closer than reality. Certainly Perahia (initially ill-at-ease, not really swinging and sparkling until the finales latter stages) was more aggressive than one might have imagined, and Giordanis throwback tenor was emphasised to someone like Mario del Monaco - a tad can belto; Hvorostovskys noble excerpt from Don Carlos was the vocal highlight.
Yet I am assured by the RFH that no sound-boost was used; I am also informed that the piano is new and has been chosen for its big sound well, this Yamaha is certainly present and vivid, but something mellower would have been more appropriate to both Schumann and Perahia.
The Philharmonia Orchestra was magnificent a sensitive accompanist, its strings velvet and hushed, the full monty delivered in the overtures poor old Verdi; hes a far more subtle and sensitive composer, something Gergiev did appreciate in the arias themselves for example, the commentaries of cor anglais and cello in Hvorostovskys choice from Rigoletto.
This though was the RFHs evening - some unforgettable concerts and no doubt many more to come. Its a welcoming, relaxed place. Its lucid, tonally faithful and dynamic acoustic has its detractors but its an enhancement, something that hopefully will not be lost in the forthcoming refurbishment.
- BBC Knowledge (Sky Digital channel 573) broadcasts this concert, Sunday 6 May, at 9.00p.m
- Gergiev conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in the RFH this Thursday, 10 May, (Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Shostakovich) and Friday (Verdi Requiem)
- Box Office: 020 7960 4201
- Book Online: www.rfh.org.uk