LPO/Gilbert concert – 24th November

Le tombeau de Couperin
Graal Theatre
Symphony No.5 in E flat

Gidon Kremer (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Alan Gilbert

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 24 November, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

As the London Philharmonic’s Composer in Focus for the current season, Kaija Saariaho will receive three performances in the Royal Festival Hall, including two UK premieres in 2002. The present concert featured her longest orchestral work to date, first performed at the 1995 Proms and enjoying a welcome and timely revival.

A distinctive presence on the European music scene since the mid-1980s, Kaija Saariaho (b.1952) has a feel for the inner life of sound unique among her contemporaries. Graal Theatre (1994) derives its substance from the fastidious interplay of textures both within the orchestra, and between orchestra and violin. The two movements do not so much provide a contrast in pace as complement each other in overall density of sound, though the violin’s soloistically-conceived role ensures that a powerful oppositional momentum builds over the work’s 26-minute span.

The opening movement moves from recitative-like gestures to an expressive conflict between soloist and orchestra, intensified after the climactic withdrawal to near silence. Its successor defines this conflict more graphically, the music artfully structured so that the mid-movement ’cadenza’ arrives at a peak of intensity, beginning a transition back to the mood and material of the work’s beginning. Thus the piece operates as an unbroken continuity, the intensified recurrence of melodic lines and gestures unerringly judged between movements as it is across the entire span.

Although he had not played Graal Theatre for a few years, the redoubtable Gidon Kremer was in scintillating form – his lean, expressive timbre audible at all times through the dense but translucent orchestral tissue, its complex textures and subtleties of tuning skilfully nuanced by Alan Gilbert, with the LPO fully equal to the challenge. Graal Theatre is a drama in search of fulfilment that casts a powerful aura.

Interest otherwise focused on Alan Gilbert. Currently Chief Conductor and Artistic Adviser of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and having conducted orchestras throughout the US and Japan, his UK debut was keenly anticipated. In Le tombeau de Couperin, an incisive rhythmic approach and control of detail was evident. That said, the rapid tempi and tonal astringency he favoured rather undersold the pathos behind the poise. Stravinsky, even Poulenc came to mind as the music sailed past, with little sense of Ravel searching out ’eternal verities’ at a time of cultural collapse.

The Sibelius was problematic in other respects. At 31 minutes, this was far from a leisurely, let alone lethargic performance, but at times it seemed so because of Gilbert’s reluctance to adopt anything like a consistent tempo for each movement. The ’tempo molto moderato’ marking at the outset felt right, though a tendency to ’nudge’ the rhythmic outline of the themes was soon discernible. While Gilbert controlled momentum up to the central climax impressively, his transition into the ’allegro moderato’, though skilfully effected, was over-fussy. Tension thereafter was well maintained, even if the accelerando going into the closing ’presto’ section seemed calculated rather than inevitable.

The second movement threw up many unexpected and intriguing details, though Gilbert’s concern to point up contrasts in this elusive sequence of ’variants’ on an initial phrase robbed the music of its coherence and teasing simplicity. Come the finale, and Gilbert’s willingness to let the brass have its head meant that the horns dominated the second theme to an almost absurd degree, which was compounded by unevenness of tone across the section. The symphony moved securely to its final peroration, brazen rather than triumphant – the six final chords rammed home with almost ruthless precision.

Alan Gilbert is a conductor of great assurance and greater potential, and the LPO should waste no time in inviting him back. Yet in perhaps seeking to demonstrate his credentials in standard repertoire, he ended up trying just a little too hard.

  • Future LPO Saariaho dates – 6 March and 19 May 2002
  • RFH Box Office 020 7960 4201 www.rfh.org.uk
  • Graal Theatre is recently recorded – read review here

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