Lorin Maazel Philharmonia Orchestra 50th Anniversary Gala Series – 1

Pelléas et Mélisande – Suite
Farewells: Symphonic Movement, Op.14 [UK premiere]
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43

Philharmonia Orchestra
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 2 April, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Lorin Maazel. Photograph: Silvia LelliIt’s fifty years since Lorin Maazel (born 1930) first conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra (in a Lisbon concert that included Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra) – and they’re both still going strong!

This concert was the first of three in the Royal Festival Hall in which Maazel includes some of his own music alongside that of Ravel, Dukas, Rossini, Shostakovich and, to open, Fauré and Sibelius. The original plan was that Maazel’s three ‘Music for…’ pieces (each a concerto, one for violin, one for flute, the other for cello) would form the centrepiece of the concerts. Unfortunately, the continued illness of Julia Fischer (for example, she cancelled in New York on 15 March for a Bavarian Radio SO/Jansons concert) meant that Music for Violin and Orchestra (Maazel’s Opus 12) had to be dropped (the night before, in Dublin, Arabella Steinbacher had stepped in and played Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1) in order to give the UK premiere of Maazel’s Farewells, a ‘Symphonic Movement’ commissioned by the Vienna Philharmonic.

Farewells, completed in 1999, requires an orchestra of at least 110 players – 9 horns (four doubling on Wagner tubas), 4 trumpets (including a bass), five trombones (one being a contrabass), enough percussion for 9 players (including timpani), harp, piano, harmonium and keyed glockenspiel, a woodwind section of 36 musicians and strings at their fullest strength founded on 10 double basses. No ‘regular’ tuba, though!

At its most complex there seemed to be too many layers of sound to be heard (the siren and the hammer didn’t make it through – I didn’t hear the latter but saw it being carried off the stage!), yet Maazel’s use of the orchestra is certainly striking and sustained this 27-minute piece well enough. If some of the invention seems all-purpose in its narration, this may reflect the angst and trepidation that is at the heart of the piece, Maazel’s stated concern for “nuclear weapons, the ozone layer and machines that produce horrific, if unintended, consequences”, while being optimistic regarding the “tenderness we can still find within the souls of those not yet desensitized by the din of the present-day human arena.” There does seem to be quite a lot of soul-searching from Maazel in Farewells, music that sometimes suggests Berg (maybe consciously given the Vienna Philharmonic starting-point) with distorted dance rhythms and passages sometimes chaotic (those machines running riot, maybe), sometimes raucous, and with sections that seem to suggest somewhere beyond Earth, somewhat filmic.

Having conducted Farewells in Vienna, Amsterdam and Chicago, it was an unexpected surprise to find Maazel bringing this lavish piece to London (a real bonus if Music for Violin and Orchestra is already known). He will soon conduct Farewells in New York during one of his final weeks as Music Director of the Philharmonic.

To open this concert the Suite from Fauré’s incidental music to Maeterlinck’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” was loving and enchanted in ‘Prélude’, rising to intense peaks and suddenly withdrawing to an interior world (Wagnerisms stressed but also deeply personal). ‘Fileuse’ was suitably quicksilver, and if the well-known ‘Sicilienne’ was a little brusque the softness of the Philharmonia Orchestra’s response offered some compensation. The funereal tread of the closing ‘La mort de Mélisande’ was unmistakable, darkly sounded. There were notable contributions from Kenneth Smith (flute), Gordon Hunt (oboe), Karen Stephenson (cello) and Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay (violin).

The first movement of Sibelius’s Second Symphony was unusually soulful and introspective, with fibrous-sounding pizzicatos, Maazel’s deliberate approach (and his control) sometimes reining-in the free-flow of the music, to the extent that the second movement’s opening plucking seemed to fly by until halted by rhetorical outbursts, a rapt benediction and further turbulence. If some passages tended to be italicised or parenthesised, there were many wonderful moments. The scherzo was curiously tepid (both in tempo and temperament), clarity of articulation being the dividend, with the finale opening out monumentally (if not necessarily as a summation of what had gone before) and not a little sentimentality. Half-lit woodwinds essayed a solemn chorale (another wonderful moment) and the closing bars were a glorious peroration, brass to the fore but not at the expense of the strings.

Whether this performance convinced totally or not, it was always compelling, often magnetic, the Philharmonia Orchestra responding willingly and responsively to Maazel’s dynamic direction.

  • Lorin Maazel conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in The Anvil, Basingstoke on 3 April and in the Royal Festival Hall on 5 April (with James Galway, at 3 p.m.) and 7 April (with Han-Na Chang)
  • Philharmonia Orchestra
  • Philharmonia Orchestra information:
    Freephone 0800 652 6717

  • Southbank Centre

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