London Philharmonic/Alsop Jonathan Biss [Till Eulenspiegel … Daphnis et Chloé … The Firebird]

Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28
Piano Concerto No.22 in E flat, K482
Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No.2
The Firebird – 1919 Suite

Jonathan Biss (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Marin Alsop

Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel

Reviewed: 16 January, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Marin Alsop. ©Grant LeightonThree crowd-pleasers in one evening! Marin Alsop gave us rather too much dessert and too little main course.

The Strauss could have been so good. In places the London Philharmonic sounded like a top American orchestra, fabulously tight ensemble, whip-crack articulation and as well upholstered as Cadillac Sedan. But that’s not necessarily what Till Eulenspiegel is about or what Richard Strauss envisaged. Alsop’s Till was all muscles and swagger – but not a lot of fun. You could only admire the quality of the playing, Alsop’s command of dynamic shifts and changes of tempo and the near-perfect balance. If only there had been more sense of mischief and the odd laugh or two.

Jonathan BissThen American pianist Jonathan Biss performed a Mozart concerto. What’s so refreshing in his playing is how little he imposes his not inconsiderable virtuosity on the music. He instils a sense of architecture and yet, he, the pianist, seems almost to disappear at times, leaving just the music. After a slightly hesitant opening entry, the first movement flowed with beautifully articulated fingerwork and lightness of touch with just the right degree of detachment so necessary in Mozart. Alsop and the LPO provided sympathetic and solid support, especially in the second movement Andante where the sweetness of the winds and horns in the serenade-like passage beautifully complemented Biss’s lyrical touch. Bliss elegantly captured the jaunty hunting-like tune of the finale, the rest of the movement offering exquisite phrasing with never a hint of mannerism: music-making of the very highest order.

After the interval the Second Suite from Daphnis et Chloé produced some sumptuous string playing in ‘Lever du Jour’ although Alsop’s building of the great crescendo was too sign-posted and rather forced. Guest Principal Adam Walker’s ravishing flute solo was the highlight of ‘Pantomime’ and ‘Danse générale’ was suitably frenzied if too loud.

It’s hard to comprehend how and why one of suites from The Firebird could have been programmed to follow Daphnis. We’d already had the finale and now here was another one! Conductor and orchestra found it hard to raise themselves, the performance short on colour and zip: the LPO sounded tired. The introduction was suitably brooding but the Firebird’s dance was leaden, ‘Infernal Dance’ a little square and ‘Berceuse’ lacking in atmosphere.

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