Symphony No.4 in A, Op.90 (Italian)
Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op.33
Symphonic Variations, Op.78
Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op.78
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 11 March, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
This generous programme made for an attractive mix of pieces in which Dvořák’s Symphonic Variations sat slightly out of kilter; a jewel in the repertoire it may be, but it’s a rarity in the concert hall. Alexander Briger, like his mentor Sir Charles Mackerras, proved a very sympathetic advocate of this masterly work (Sir Colin Davis and Wolfgang Sawallisch are notable interpreters too). Dvořák’s concise commentaries weld into a work of substance and culminate in a thrilling and passionate fugal finale. Briger’s concern for beguiling detail was admirable (as ever, Dvořák’s orchestration is a pleasure in itself) and some balletic moments seemed to have kinship with Tchaikovsky. Just occasionally, Briger encouraged the brass to be too loud, and he might have been less determined at times; but it was a fine and finely played account. Anyone hearing the work for the first time would have been fortunate.
It was the highlight of the concert, in fact. Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony could have done with a tad more rehearsal, but it mattered little for Briger raced his way through the work. Tempos for all four movements were brisk and relentless and much of the music’s relaxed charm was simply never countenanced. Under the circumstances, ignoring the first movement repeat was a good idea. By the finale it was no surprise that Briger would be boorish and play the ‘Saltarello’ as fast as possible; rarely have the woodwind arabesques at the movement’s mid-point been so shapeless and thrown away.
Briger opened the first few bars of the Tchaikovsky with more heart than ever surfaced in the Mendelssohn. Li-Wei gave a disjointed account; his technique can be effortful (but he brought of the final pyrotechnics with aplomb), his tone not varied enough, sometimes there is a welcome simplicity but he also indulged in phrasal distension that was contrived and mannered; the cadenzas were made a meal of. At least he looks around the orchestra to establish some sort of rapport with the musicians. He played the original soloist Fitzenhagen’s edition, which has claims to be more satisfying than Tchaikovsky’s original; what the programme note didn’t advise is that it is perfectly possible to also play the work as conceived by Tchaikovsky, as Steven Isserlis does, for example. Li-Wei offered an encore, a “March by Prokofiev”; familiar music but not in this arrangement; Li-Wei tried to be humorous with his slides and pizzicatos.
Catherine Edwards was treated like a soloist in the programme; strange given the organ is but one of many instruments in Saint-Saëns’s orchestra and plays in only two of the four movements. She underpinned the slow movement well enough, and here Briger elicited some lovely string sound and heartfelt phrasing. But apart from making the symphony’s opening bars atmospheric and anticipatory, Briger’s conception of the work and his projection of it was deplorable. His tempos in the first and third movements were ludicrously fast – the music was massacred, its detail lacking shape and lucidity, the LPO musicians pressured and struggling to articulate. The scherzo’s light, spectral middle section was dashed through with alarming misjudgement. But the nadir was the finale, the organ coarse-sounding, in which Briger piled on the dynamics and crudity and was seemingly oblivious to the needs of the music. The blaring brass, crude percussion and the conductor’s immature accelerations and excessive fortissimos simply wrecked havoc on this great work. Shameful.