International Conductors’ Academy of the Allianz Cultural Foundation [Arturo Alvarado, Darrell Ang, Yordan Kamdzhalov]

Peter Grimes – Four Sea Interludes, Op.33a
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.16
Powder Her Face – Overture, Waltz and Finale
The Firebird [1945 Suite]

Sunwook Kim (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Arturo Alvarado [Britten]
Darrell Ang [Prokofiev & Adès]
Yordan Kamdzhalov

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 13 October, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

This was not a competition. The three on-the-up conductors chosen for the 2010-11 Season have already benefited from the International Conductors’ Academy of the Allianz Cultural Foundation, which involves the London Philharmonic and Philharmonia orchestras. They were now each conducting a work (or two) to complement “podium sessions”, tutelage from Esa-Pekka Salonen and Lorin Maazel, and across-the-board, behind-the-scene involvement with the day-to-day existence of an orchestra.

Arturo Alvarado took awhile to obtain personal results in the ‘Sea Interludes’ from Britten’s opera. The Philharmonia delivered anyway, although ‘Dawn’ was on the scrappy side, Alvarado perhaps not sending the clearest signals, and the violins were thin-sounding. Although sea-foam was in the air, this particular daybreak was short of ominous intent. ‘Sunday Morning’ was bright and rousing if still without operatic edge and the underlying insularity of the Borough’s ‘community’ that Peter Grimes is on the outside of. But ‘Moonlight’ brought a nocturnal lament, expressive swellings and pregnant pauses, which was then blown away by a furious ‘Storm’ that generated real force.

The Firebird is a regular on the Philharmonia’s schedule – whether complete with Salonen, the 1919 Suite from Lazarev, and the 1945 confection under Saraste (and, for those with long memories, also Svetlanov – preserved on CD). Of Stravinsky’s three Firebird suites, the 1945 version is perhaps the least successful, mostly because it is the most-reduced in terms of orchestration, something of a shadow of the complete version’s extravagance. Yordan Kamdzhalov (conducting from memory) seemed determined to register every detail; texturally it was crystal-clear yet skeletal. Faster numbers were on the brisk side – fine for ‘Infernal Dance’ but less convincing elsewhere, Kamdzhalov overly strict and restricting a sense of dance. The pealing ‘Finale’ was rushed. Partly due to the composer’s revision and partly to the conductor’s concern for transparency, this was something of a concerto for orchestra, a sense of narrative largely lacking. A plumage was visible at times, though, and there’s no doubting that Kamdzhalov has a good ear (he knows this music inside and out) and can also conjure and sustain passages of the quietest dynamic given with the gentlest touch. Kamdzhalov demonstrated discipline and determination but not always a sense of fantasy, although Katy Woolley (a heroine in Maazel’s recent Mahler 9) managed to sound her wonderful horn solos from somewhere deep in the forest.

Darrell Ang seemed to have the measure of the mechanisms, parody and burlesque of the snippets from Thomas Adès’s Duchess of Argyle opera. It’s clever stuff, and short, but the dance-band pastiche soon palls; Ang coordinated things well and entered the salacious world created with openness. In any case, he had impressed immediately at the opening of the evening’s concerto, establishing the right mood and something for Sunwook Kim to hang his hat on. And what a great performance Kim – who won the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition in 2006 at the age of 18, justifiably so with an impressive Brahms First Concerto – gave of Prokofiev’s most unruly yet arguably greatest piano concerto. This was a positive collaboration between the performers – Ang contributing much, the Philharmonia incantatory, slithering, rampant, brutal and scintillating – with Kim technically assured and musically persuasive, wistful and strange early on, building the huge (five-minute) rhetorical cadenza to Incandescence. The ‘Scherzo’ was perpetual (Kim in perfect shape), the Intermezzo’ pounding, and the ‘Finale’ had its brilliance and folksong in tandem. This is music of many an outrageous gesture, the composer relishing notoriety. Although these aspects came through it wasn’t made a feature of, for Kim and Ang, backed to the hilt by the Philharmonia Orchestra, synchronised a making-music reading that stole the show.

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