London Philharmonic/Jaap van Zweden Emanuel Ax

Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.19
Symphony No.5

Emanuel Ax (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Jaap van Zweden

Reviewed by: Matthew Boyden

Reviewed: 16 January, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Jaap van Zweden. Photograph: IMG ArtistsEven though Mahler’s symphonies are now hardly a rarity in the concert diary, there remains something thrilling about the performance of one of these masterpieces by an international symphony orchestra. Part of that excitement comes from knowing that Mahler’s music rewards like that of few other composers the attentions of an original and creative musical imagination.

Conversely, bad performances of Mahler’s symphonies are among the worst musical experiences. Despite the common abuse of the fourth-movement (“Death in Venice”) Adagietto by conductors during the last 40 years, Mahler’s Fifth is arguably Mahler’s most ecstatic and thrilling symphony. Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden clearly recognised this, up to a point, and he is to be commended for bringing considerable energy to the podium.

Unfortunately, this energy was not transmitted (or was ignored wilfully) by the musicians of the London Philharmonic. Small in stature, van Zweden compensated by leaping about as if he was standing barefoot on a griddle – it came as no surprise to find that he was given his first conducting opportunity by Leonard Bernstein, to whose orgiastic gesticulations van Zweden’s manner stands unhappy comparison; the Dutchman’s dancing and grimacing was extended by some truly awful grunting and hissing.

This would be ghastly from a genius and is worse still in someone like Zweden, who despite knowing the music well, and having some idea of what he wished to do with it, managed nonetheless to avoid bringing any sense of a musical identity or structure to this most theatrical of symphonies. The Nadir of his conducting manner was that abysmal cliché, relished by many conductors who began their musical lives as violinists: namely, the rapidly shaken left-hand, thrust in the face of the orchestra’s Leader so as to encourage yet more (one imagines) string tone and/or vibrato. If he was difficult to look at from an audience viewpoint, then the orchestra is not to be blamed for ignoring him, and it was striking how few of the players took any notice at all.

There were glimmers of hope during the first movement in which van Zweden effected a couple of glorious changes of pace and some of his tempos during the second movement were near-ideal, but the architecture remained throughout uncertain, and after a boring and indulgent ‘Adagietto’, the finale was far too episodic for the glorious Chorale to sound anything more than perfunctory. The orchestra played masterfully throughout, even if the string tone was often thin; the horn and trumpet sections were superb, and each of the first-desk soloists shone.

The concert began with an effete and prissy performance of Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto by Emanuel Ax. This was playing of considerable appeal, but it lacked substance, and made a sorry virtue of the performers’ aching sensitivity. Skeletons need muscles to pull them together, and Ax’s playing proved flabby and effected.

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