Ma Mère l’oye Prokofiev
Violin Concerto No.1 in D, Op.19 Stravinsky
Symphony in C
Yossif Ivanov (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Jérémie Rhorer [Ravel]
Philippe Bach [Prokofiev]
London Philharmonic Orchestra – International Conductors’ Academy
Friday, June 13, 2008 Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
This was a ‘proper’ concert, not a competition, shared by three conductors whom have benefited from the International Conductors’ Academy of the Allianz Cultural Foundation, incepted in 2003, a collaboration between Southbank Centre, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Philharmonia Orchestra.
The Ravel and Stravinsky pieces swapped places from that advertised and while the symphony would have made an upbeat opening and the ballet-score (in its complete form) a resounding conclusion, the performances themselves established the order as the most satisfying.
Least compelling was the concerto. Philippe Bach (born 1974 in Switzerland) was a lively presence on the podium and secured some detailed playing (if somewhat muddy ‘down below’ in the second-movement scherzo). The overall lack of edge and temperament found conductor and soloist in agreement (consciously?), Yossif Ivanov being decidedly cool and lacking characterisation as well as restricted in tone and occasionally technically challenged. The performance sold the work very short, there being little sense of fantasy and volatility, with some awkward tempo-changes to boot.
Beforehand, Parisian Jérémie Rhorer’s conducting of Mother Goose was initially gently voluptuous and atmospherically ‘distant’, crepuscular timbres adding to the allure (slightly detracted by the few bars that were intruded upon by a ringing mobile!). Such promise was then intermittent – some of the phrasing was a little stiff – and whilst one admired the delicacy of the playing (the woodwinds were notable) and Rhorer’s ability to sift melody from decoration, and that his objectivity was in-keeping with Ravel’s own aesthetic, there was a lack of ambience and fairy-tale narrative, the music not quite touching the heart as it can; the ‘interlude’, with harp and celesta magical, prior to ‘Impératrice des Pagodes’, had a potency not always evident elsewhere.
Australian Benjamin Northey (a student of John Hopkins, Leif Segerstam and Jorma Panula) took the honours with a very impressive performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, a nightmare of compositional intricacy. Whether Northey’s marionette-like conducting style is typical, his gestures here secured the most responsive and lucidly balanced playing of the evening in what was also the most convincing interpretation. Tempos were spot-on, the first movement’s rhythmic elan and expressive retorts related and pirouetting ideally, Northey appreciating that the whole work is a series of unified contrasts (a slow movement with scherzo elements and a scherzo in which trio sections are decidedly leisurely), the finale here being unusually convincing as an entity and a conclusion, the ultimate chord both a summing-up and an evaporation, beautifully managed here.
What was also apparent in this account was not only the humour of the piece (albeit one written during a period, 1938-40, when one of Stravinsky’s daughters, and his wife and mother, had all died) but also that the composer seems to look back to Pulcinella and Symphonies of Wind Instruments (in its original version, the revision was still to come) as well as anticipating Symphony in Three Movements (a gesture in the finale can, in the mind, kick-start the later work). Furthermore, while the LPO occasionally reminded that Symphony in C places huge demands on its performers, there was also security and mutual trust much in evidence (after each movement, the second and third are linked, Northey bowed his head to the orchestra) that made for an engrossing and revealing performance that could not have been followed.