LPO/Paul Watkins Steven Osborne

Danses concertantes
Piano Concerto No.12 in A, K414
Serenade in D minor, Op.44
Pulcinella – Suite

Steven Osborne (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Paul Watkins

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 12 February, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Another ingenious London Philharmonic programme for the Queen Elizabeth Hall; Stravinsky utilising Baroque and Classical models, a superlative performance of one of Mozart’s best but lesser played piano concertos, and Dvořák’s delightful wind Serenade, all conducted with admirable precision by Paul Watkins, very well known as a cellist, of course, and here making his conducting debut with the LPO.

Danses concertantes, written in Hollywood between 1940-42, was Stravinsky’s first completed work after his arrival in the States. A surprisingly sunny work, written for chamber forces, it was conceived as an abstract ballet and has been choreographed by Balanchine and Kenneth Macmillan amongst others. Under Watkins, who is possessed of an admirably clear stick technique, Danses was despatched with an exuberant combination of precision and subtlety.

The Mozart concerto received a crisply buoyant and characterful rendering. Osborne and Watkins gave this music – which all-too-often can seem bland – a real muscularity and backbone whilst never over-stepping appropriate stylistic bounds. The outer movements were taken at a swift pace, Osborne still finding plenty of light and shade and subtly varying the tensions. I was reminded of Rudolf Serkin – whom I once heard rehearse the piece – and Osborne timed the music’s important pauses with particular care. The dignified slow movement, with its echoes of Handel, was given with rare concentration and was the performance’s emotional core.

Although very finely played, Dvořák’s Serenade for woodwinds (and some string bass) gave the least pleasure, missing much of the music’s easy charm. Partly it was a question of tempos, which without exception were on the fast side, but more fundamentally the performance sounded too micro-managed as if just a degree too much emotional weight were being overlaid onto this agreeable music.

In the Suite from Pulcinella, Watkins found far more of each section’s essential character, hitting exactly the right tempos. Come the wonderfully absurd ‘Vivo’, with its hilarious trombone solo, and the exuberant ‘Finale’, the LPO was firing on all cylinders. Although he tends to over-dot Is and cross Ts, cueing every entry, Watkins is certainly in control of what is happening and gets results: if he can find a greater degree of relaxation and variety, it will be even better.

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