The Isle of the Dead, Op.29
Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K488
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30
Leon Fleisher (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 20 February, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
The London Philharmonic was on top form and at full strength (founded on ten double basses) for the symphonic poems. In the Rachmaninov (inspired by Böcklin’s painting) had Vladimir Jurowski set a tempo just a little slower then a grimmer, more relentless process would have been set up. As it was, for all the excellence of execution, and Ian Hardwick’s very affecting oboe solos, this isle was rather more inviting than it should be.
Similarly, the Nietzsche-inspired Also sprach Zarathustra had been very well prepared. This was a performance of dynamism, vivid detailing and unanimity, often sounding wonderful (the division between antiphonal violins meaningfully lucid). Jurowski’s approach seemed to be to integrate the work’s episodes as cohesively as possible, which, while a good intention, didn’t always convince in that some moments seemed too constrained to the overall grand design. Yet there was no doubting the sure sense of direction that informed this performance, or the cataclysm of the Midnight Bell climax (the tubular variety, for once, pretty audible in the melee) or the (welcome) lack of exaggeration in the Viennese-waltz take in ‘Dance-Song’ (the violin solos suavely played by Carmine Lauri).
Having set up potent uncertainty at the close of the work (through the orchestra’s high and lows, no middle frequencies), Jurowski might have made longer of the suspenseful silence before putting his baton down; equally, having seemed determined not to be opening a film with the now-famous ‘Sunrise’ (the Royal Festival Hall organ called into action), whilst this again showed a resistance to spectacle, Jurowski then perhaps drove too straight a furrow through the rest of the piece. ‘Of Science’, arguably the deepest music of the score, cued a bevy of coughing!
Otherwise, Leon Fleisher’s appearance was a particular attraction. Born in 1928, Fleisher’s international career was cruelly redefined at the age of 37 by focal dystonia, which rendered two of his right-hand fingers immobile. Much left-hand playing, teaching and conducting later, Fleisher has been restored as a two-handed pianist.
Mozart’s A major Piano Concerto was given a time-taken and intimate performance, the much-reduced LPO arranged first violins, cellos, violas, second violins and winds in a semicircle around the piano, three double basses centre-rear. Fleisher gave a gentle, limpid and poetic account, intense enough to justify such an approach and peaking in the central Adagio, profound its utterance. (That he played from copy is immaterial.) If Fleisher’s fingers are not so nimble these days – there were a few muddles in the finale – this was a performance of wisdom and experience that held the attention and rewarded the senses, the accompaniment (not least the in-relief winds) fastidious in itself and respectful to Fleisher’s spare but patrician playing.