Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien – Symphonic fragments
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)
Hélène Grimaud (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 26 November, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Audiences can make or break a concert. Elements of this particular gathering conspired to ruin it. The Tchaikovsky especially: coughing into silent bars, general noise, and then some idiot clapped too early as the last bars of the finale ebbed into nothingness (albeit it was already competing with further coughs and those pernicious watch-bleeps that greet each hour: by ill-luck, we had reached spot-on 10 o’clock) only for others to immediately join in. However much stillness Vladimir Jurowski might have mined at this point, we shall never know. As for the applause that greeted the third-movement march, this may be time-honoured (unless Muti is conducting!), but, boy, is it maddening. The twits who indulge this ‘tradition’ wouldn’t have thought of the conductor going straight into the finale, which is exactly what Vladimir Jurowski did – a potentially effective idea, the finale’s opening bars covered by some people’s vacuousness.
Then there was the man who moved down several rows – but did so just as the first movement gets down to pppppp! He was no doubt trying to get away from the intermittent high-pitched whistle (presumably from someone’s hearing-aid, which seemed to emanate from the rear stalls), which I’m told was just as audible to those in the choir seats (and therefore, presumably, picked up by the microphones recording the concert for the LPO’s archives). Maybe the pre-performance recorded ‘guideline’ that Ian McKellen gives us – for it is indeed him – can be extended to switching off bleeping watches and playing with mobile phones (some were at this concert), except those that laugh at the request “to keep coughing to a minimum” are probably those who ignorantly intrude with such things.
As for the performance, the playing was top-notch and benefited from the LPO’s recent tour of Germany, beginning with a particularly fine bassoon solo. Yet Jurowski played-down tempo contrasts (if only he’d done the same with the too-loud trumpets and trombones) and the movement as a whole lacked variety if not intensity, the latter too applied at times. One feature of the performance was clarity of detail, a trombone counterpoint in the second-movement waltz for example, but the third movement was rushed through, sounded glib and just like 3,000 other renditions. The finale had breadth and dignity, a particularly doom-laden gong-stroke and keenly accented double bass pizzicatos keeping things alive – until the fatal audience intrusion.
Maybe Hélène Grimaud thought ‘another’ Rach 2 was one too many (she was on the tour, too), for she rarely seemed involved, somnambulant tempo-wise, lugubrious in the wrong sense, and only catching fire (in part) in the finale. The orchestra was less on auto-pilot, as some fresh detailing revealed, yet this is a piece that comes round too often (and will do so again later this season, again with Jurowski, albeit with the octogenarian Aldo Ciccolini). Better that Grimaud had stuck with the originally scheduled Bartók No.3 – her DG recording with Boulez is one of the best.
The best of this concert was at the beginning, a wonderfully judged version of Debussy’s music for “The Martydom of St Sebastian”. Translucent and mysterious, Jurowski and the LPO judged exquisitely the music’s mystical and ecstatic qualities, it savage isolation, and – in the final two movements – Debussy’s Expressionism, here taken daringly slowly but to hypnotic effect.