The Philharmonia Orchestra kicked off ponderously with a bass-heavy rendition of Mozarts brilliant curtain-raiser to Beaumarchaiss satire. There was little or no attention to the musics hustle and bustle. The strings were overwhelmed at times it all sounded routine and matter-of-fact.
Michael Collinss decision not to play Pletnevs transcription was explained thus: "Performing such a masterpiece is always a challenge, but after some early performances of the piece I have reached the opinion that the transcription of the Beethoven Violin Concerto on to the clarinet doesnt work. It has saddened me from the bottom of my heart that I have come to this conclusion, but for purely musical reasons I feel it is the right decision. Therefore I hope you will understand why I will perform the Mozart Clarinet Concerto instead."
Following a graceful opening slightly marred by some intrusive woodwind, Michael Collins produced a faultless performance of a work that is second nature to him. He involved himself so much in sensitive interplay with the orchestra that one wondered whether a conductor was needed. Kreizberg just about managed to stay in command. Only fleetingly did the orchestra not match the soloists happy-go-lucky approach. In the Finale, Collins brilliantly demonstrated the clarinets capabilities that so appealed to Mozart as he glided chirpily through staccato passages and low- and high-note phrases with variegated colour. The Adagio, with limpid, fluid legato from Collins, was the highlight of a fine performance.
Shostakovichs Fifth Symphony was given a charismatic performance that survived a shaky start to reveal despairing anger and malevolence. This initial lack of rhythmic attack was followed by a beautifully phrased theme in the cellos, although the horns sounded awkward and tentative. It required the rest of the brass to show the way with its mocking martial theme. As one section shined another wilted; this time, the strings were drowned in the brassy glare. Here was the turning point of the performance neither orchestra nor conductor faltered again.
Crescendos were well thought out; premeditated, yes, but not hackneyed. There was also a plethora of subtle moments with false climaxes and sudden rushes all seamlessly interwoven. The result was tense, exhilarating and terrifying. Two movements stand out in this respect: the first with a tremendous fortissimo pinnacle and the Largo third that built up inexorably.
Kreizberg juggled with the tempo in these two movements. This worked better in the Moderato with its constant shifts in mood. In the Largo, Kreizberg walked a tightrope between a slow tempo and attention to detail; the music would have dragged but for the quality playing. The hushed strings were much more effective than in the Mozart where the barely audible pianissimo was out of balance with the clarinet. Nevertheless, there is a fine line between accommodating ones own conception with the composers markings. After the climax there was a cathedral-like calm.
The Allegretto second movement and concluding Allegro non troppo were more conventional. The seconds parody and grotesqueness was emphasised by loud harps during the violin solo. This sense of farce was overdone: does not the music look gaily outward rather than despondently inward? The moderated final movement was distinctive for its phrasing and dynamic contrasts.
Of many fine solos, particular mention should be made of the main themes reprise in the first movement played with exquisite intonation between horn and flute.
- Michael Collins has recorded Mikhail Pletnevs clarinet transcription of Beethovens Violin Concerto DG 457 652-2 www.deutschegrammophon.com
- The Philharmonia Orchestra completes its Walton Series with Troilus and Cressida conducted by Richard Hickox this Thursday, 28 March, at 7.30p.m
- Box Office: 020 7960 4201 www.rfh.org.uk