London Philharmonic/Belohlavek – 11 December

Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor, K491
Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor

Stephen Kovacevich (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Jiri Belohlavek

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 11 December, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

A concert that might almost be described as the aural equivalent of schizophrenia, comprising an uninspired and poorly played performance of Mozart’s concerto and a quite superlative Mahler 5. In fact, it was sometimes hard to believe that one was at the same concert, so startling were the differences in quality between the two halves. Perhaps the message for programme planners is that when large-scale pieces are scheduled, less is more, and we should settle for well-rehearsed single-work concerts.

This Mahler 5 was altogether special. London has heard some major foreign orchestras programme this piece in the last few years – Barenboim/Chicago and Rattle/Berlin. What this combination of orchestra and conductor demonstrated is that you do not have to be in the orchestral super-league to give a magnificently penetrating performance. This Mahler 5 was the absolute antithesis of the “slam-dunk” school of Mahler conducting – I do not refer to the two excellent performances mentioned previously – where so-called star conductors frequently use the music as a vehicle to work out their own neuroses. Belohlavek’s performance was substantially understated other than at the real climaxes (which certainly went for the jugular), dynamics were carefully observed, and the orchestra played well within itself producing a beautiful, gentle sound quality.

Individual points of detail such as the rather slow ländlers and waltzes of the third movement might be questioned (although Mahler does mark this movement ’Nicht zu schnell’). What was never in doubt was the sense of direction and long-term structural planning. Although the symphony has five movements, both the opening funeral march and the vehement second are clearly linked, as are the concluding ’Adagietto’ and closing movement. The central Scherzo forms the pivot of the arch. This steady progress from the anguished opening, through the leisurely central stretches to the joyous affirmation of the slightly tongue-in-cheek apotheosis was made wonderfully explicit, minimising what in other hands can seem like longeurs.

A special word of praise for the playing of the strings and harp in the ’Adagietto’, over-exposed music which can frequently sound cloying. Here it was played with deep sentiment but without a shred of sentimentality, and with patently unvarnished sincerity. The rapt expressions on the faces of the listening wind section said it all, as for once did the complete silence on the part of the audience. This is what makes good concerts – one of those few times when as a society we collectively stop and, at least for a moment, share common humanity.

The Mozart, played with a fairly large string section, was disappointing on every count, lacking any sense of the danger and sheer menace lurking just below the notes of the outer movements or the “balm in a troubled world” of the slow one. Kovacevich played adequately but was not much helped by some fairly indifferent wind playing, nor by his stylistically-jarring first movement cadenza.

Several years ago Belohlavek gave an excellent Mahler 6 in London with the BBC Symphony). He should be given the opportunity to conduct more. With so many indifferent and stylistically illiterate Mahler conductors around, we cannot afford to ignore the seriously good ones.

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