Hollywood Extra

Sawer
Take Off
Hollywood Extra

Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Edward Gardner

Weber
Oberon – Overture
Brahms
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83
Tchaikovsky
Symphony No.2 in C minor, Op.17 (Little Russian) [Revised Version]

Nikolai Lugansky (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Alexander Lazarev

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Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 26 April, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

In the early-evening (and very well attended) “Music of Today” concert, Julian Anderson (Artistic Director of MOT) spoke to fellow-composer David Sawer. It emerged that Sawer (born 1961) is musically stimulated by images and is also interested in machinery from the early decades of the last century. One such is primitive aircraft. The Wright brothers and their experiments with flying machines inspired Take Off (1987). That was in 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. From the Wright brothers’ activities came the subtitle for Sawer’s work – ‘a mechanical ballet’. Lasting 18 minutes and scored for a septet of flute (alto flute and piccolo), two clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), piano and string trio, Take Off includes glissandos that remind of pulleys and instrumental touches such as a pugnacious piano and low notes from the winds. It’s not all defined rhythms for some sections create the fragility of the Wright brothers’ first attempts at flying machines, some timbres suggesting ice on the wings. It’s an intriguing work full of surprises written with a keen ear for colour and timbre. A shame that the quiet final bars were intruded upon by a member of the audience unwrapping a cough sweet; another few seconds and the piece would have finished!

There followed Sawer’s score (composed in 1996 at the invitation of the British Film Institute) for the film “The Life and Death of 9413 – A Hollywood Extra”, a ‘silent’ from 1928 made outside of the Hollywood ‘system’ by Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich in an avant-garde, surreal snipe at Hollywood itself. This excellent ‘short’ was made with considerable imagination on a low budget (100 dollars, apparently) and is finely complemented by Sawer’s inventive score (written for octet, including trumpet, trombone, percussion, piano and double bass) that certainly brought to life the images and the hopeful (if hapless) actor (his forehead inscribed ‘9413’).

As with Take Off, the performance, in total sync with the film, was realised superbly by members of the Philharmonia Orchestra under Edward Gardner.

The ‘main’ concert begun with the magical and masterly overture to Weber’s operatic swansong “Oberon” (written for London). This account lacked atmosphere and enchantment, the music not responding well to Alexander Lazarev’s excitability and volubility; the faster music was a bit of a scamper, Mark van de Wiel given little time to shape properly his clarinet solo.

All these pieces begin with horn solos, and all were finely rendered. In Brahms’s large-scale, four-movement concerto, Nikolai Lugansky was alive to the work’s poetry and majesty; he played with enviable command and poise. Whether he quite captured Brahms’s ‘roundness’ of expression is another matter. Lugansky’s playing was often deliciously intimate, no stranger to reverie, and he had all the rollicking power and technical facility needed to deal with Brahms’s extravagant demands. The Philharmonia’s contribution was altogether better honed than in the Weber, although Josephine Knight’s cello solo in the third movement, however beautifully played, was rather self-consciously moulded and the centre of the movement wasn’t quite rapt enough. (As so often, when the cellos are positioned outside right, the solo emerged ‘away’ from the pianist. Brahms would have expected antiphonal violins as the ‘norm’, which would have allowed the cellos to sit centre-left, the principal player next to the pianist. When this concerto appears next in London from the Philharmonia Orchestra, 4 October 2007, Royal Festival Hall, with Yefim Bronfman as soloist, Christoph von Dohnányi will prove the point.) From Lugansky the finale was relaxed and playful.

The pianist offered an encore, the ‘Scherzo’ from Mendelssohn’s music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, presumably in Rachmaninov’s transcription; while arguably too fast, Lugansky gave a scintillating performance.

It was then good to hear Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony, ‘Little Russia’ referring to the Ukraine and the folk music from there that Tchaikovsky uses. Lazarev used the Revised Version (it is many years since Rozhdestvensky conducted the Original in London, which was quite a surprise given the Royal Philharmonic hadn’t advertised it as such!). Lazarev led a vigorous, occasionally noisy account that was a little foursquare and needed to breathe more. But the second movement march was cutely brought off and the scherzo was exhilarating. In the finale (played complete), Lazarev – never knowingly undersold – made the episodes seem not variegated enough, but Keith Bragg broke through with a gleeful piccolo solo and the coda was unstoppable. Lazarev turning 180 degrees to face the audience on the final long-held chord was dubious, but his irrepressibility has certainly won him many friends over the years.

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