The London Philharmonic’s founder Sir Thomas Beecham died fifty years ago. This concert honoured his memory. A little Delius would have been appropriate, but at least Beecham did conduct this particular Schubert symphony (Somm recently unearthed a with-attitude concert performance with him in this very hall from 1955) and Mozart was a feature of Beecham’s repertoire.
John Ryan’s gently beckoning horn solo ushered in the Overture (one of music’s minor miracles) that Weber only just managed to write in time for Oberon’s London premiere. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conjured an enchanted atmosphere before the sunlight of the allegro burst in, moderate in pace, joyous in effect. Robert Hill offered a melting clarinet solo before vigour – and compositional rigour – abounded and the whole was ebulliently concluded.
The Schubert also opens with a horn call; not so promising on this occasion. Nézet-Séguin’s increases in pace during the introduction were a little jerky as the LPO settled into an exposition of pastel shades and rounded fortissimos. Rough-hewn and dramatic this work can be, with Furtwängler as a guide; or, cueing Giulini, a time-taken spiritual rite of passage. Nézet-Séguin painted with water-colours, creating tapestries of spider-web intricacy; but the emotional range was limited. Admirable in itself, but not always convincing, this well-prepared, lucid account was nimbly and sensitively played but lacked a sense of journey and upheaval – the second-movement Andante con moto was impressive in its measured tread and enrapturing in its wonderment but fell short come the turmoil of its climax; yet in its aftermath the response from cellos and Ian Hardwick’s oboe was sweetly special. The scherzo enjoyed impetus, and the finale was ‘easily’ paced, not as gemütlich
as Barbirolli and Knappertsbusch but heading that way, somewhat undoing what had gone before, for it was rather familiar terrain. Nor was the strength and certainty with which Boult cohered the work quite within Nézet-Séguin's gift. The trombone-players should be mentioned: they supported warmly, and growled without intruding.
Off the record: the second movement was delayed in starting when Nézet-Séguin caught sight of a steward in action, a holdall – but not its owner – removed from the auditorium. On the record: of the six repeats Nézet-Séguin could have observed, he took only two, the first one in the scherzo and the first in the trio. In terms of Schubert’s majestic scale, not so Great, but maybe in-keeping with the conductor’s transparent, purified view of the piece.
Back in May 2009 the London Philharmonic tempted veteran pianist Aldo Ciccolini to a rare London concerto appearance. He played a Rachmaninov No.2 that was absorbing and unsullied. The return for this Naples-born French citizen, now a couple of months past his 86th-birthday, was also a triumph. From the off, this was a reading full of minor-key tension, LPO woodwinds especially chipper, Nézet-Séguin valuing his soloist. Ciccolini is pure music. Sage, venerable and priest-like, he has no need to add decorations or intervene with anything novel or contrived. He trusts composers and speaks plainly and truthfully on their behalf. No concession need be made for Ciccolini's age: his fingers are fleet and controlled and his instincts are sharp. Ciccolini played with the freshness and eagerness of a teenager while his seasoned personality and his wisdom informed every note that he played through his fluent craft. The central 'Romanza' was unadorned yet affecting; at its mid-point we were n the eye of the storm rather than buffeted by it. In the outer movements he chose Beethoven’s cadenzas: in the first one we were in the world of the ‘Appassionata’. Ciccolini’s appearance was once again a humbling and inspiring experience. The LPO recorded it, as it did the Rachmaninov. What a distinguished coupling they would now make for the LPO's label.