London Philharmonic/Gaffigan – Strauss & Rachmaninov – Jonathan Biss plays Mozart

Don Juan, Op.20
Piano Concerto No.17 in G, K453
Symphonic Dances, Op.45

Jonathan Biss (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
James Gaffigan

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 28 October, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

James Gaffigan. Photograph: Margaretta K. MitchellDescribed as “young”, and certainly looking the part, American James Gaffigan seems to have come from nowhere. He has notched up some premier-league debuts, not least Glyndebourne where last year he shared Così fan tutte with the late Sir Charles Mackerras and he returns there next year for La Cenerentola. He has recently taken up concurrent posts, as Chief Conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic.

This was Gaffigan’s first conducting assignment with the London Philharmonic. Straight off, young man’s music met a youthful interpreter. A few rough edges in the playing aside, this was a primed and propelling account of Richard Strauss’s Don Juan, a vivid narrative played out through musical wellbeing. At the end, Gaffigan’s first gesture was to walk into the orchestra and shake oboist David Theodore by the hand.

Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances (his swansong, first heard in 1941) was less successful. Written for Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, their 1960 recording (CBS/Sony) is an unsurpassed yardstick. (Charles Dutoit carried on the Philadelphians’ tradition in this great score at this year’s BBC Proms.) According to the recently late Eric Mason’s programme note, the first Dance’s marking of Non allegro is an error. Maybe, but it’s hardly “eccentric”; rather it’s cautionary, and Ormandy being there at the birth, the composer at his side, his tempo is ideally ‘not fast’ and completely convincing. Even without such supreme guidance, Gaffigan was hasty, harrying the music along, the LPO hard-pressed, and even the saxophone-led slower section wasn’t allowed to breathe. It seemed impatient. Similarly the finale was over-driven, glossing over darkness and emotional depth, with no expanse for Orthodox chant. The long-held tam-tam crash (with which this performance ended, itself a textural conundrum given Ormandy eschews it) was very effectively faded to nothing while Gaffigan froze like a statue. Just before this bare-knuckle ride (save it wasn’t) he had introduced a persuasive ‘end of the day’ feel to the remembrance enshrined in the languorous middle section, and he also had success with the gloom and edge of the shadowy and shifting middle-movement waltz. Throughout, greater attention to dynamic contrasts would have been welcome.

Jonathan Biss. Photograph: J KatzAs Lady Bracknell nearly said (in a Wilde moment): “To lose one pianist may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose two looks like carelessness.” Twice this week the LPO had mislaid a soloist: Maria João Pires withdrew two days previously – Rafał Blechacz to the rescue – and now Paul Lewis was indisposed, Jonathan Biss taking his place. He changed K488 to K453 and enjoyed a crisply elegant accompaniment with some beguiling woodwind contributions. Biss’s playing was stylish, clear-cut and understated, if just a little bland at times. The slow movement, which can be so affecting if broadly paced, flowed more like a serenade, its solemnity too lightly brushed; and while the finale was articulate, and its opera seria and buffa aspects well contrasted, the witty close was just a little deadpan. But there was nothing to suggest the last-minute circumstances of the performance.

Given the unexpurgated coughing that some in the audience insensitively peppered the music with during the concert’s course, no doubt London pharmacies are now enjoying a thriving trade selling linctuses.

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