Peter Grimes Four Sea Interludes
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 3 April, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
A noticeably small house for this London Symphony Orchestra concert with Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Perhaps the absence of a concerto deterred a number of ’fair-weather’ concertgoers. Or perhaps Gardiner’s reputation in twentieth-century repertoire is an equivocal one. On the basis of tonight’s showing, the latter is certainly true.
The Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes made a somewhat wan impression. The atmospheric constituents of ’Dawn’ were awkwardly co-ordinated, and though the return of the main woodwind idea in ’Sunday Morning’ was vividly defined, string articulation was decidedly uneven. The claustrophobic moodiness of ’Moonlight’ was neutrally downplayed, while the deceptively calm passage in ’Storm’ failed to contrast with the stresses around it. During each interlude, moreover, there was little sense of a sustained, cumulative span; rather emotions remained firmly disengaged throughout.
The most surprising feature of Gardiner’s conducting was its indecisiveness as to orchestral balance and highlighting of detail. La mer suffered particularly in this regard: passages such as the divided cellos and horns just over half-way into ’From Dawn to Midday on the Sea’, and the half-regretful tapering away at the close of ’Play of the Waves’ made little impression, while the alternation between the inexorable and the ethereal in ’Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea’ failed to generate real momentum. Orchestral colour scarcely came into the reckoning, and the additional brass parts were made to sound even cruder than usual. Not a performance likely, in the words of Noël Goodwin, “(to) continue in the mind and imagination long after the music has ceased”.
Prokofiev Five was better, both in ensemble and characterisation. The initial paragraph of the opening ’Andante’ was thoughtfully shaped – and if Gardiner’s predilection for breaking down phrases into clearly defined units gave the latter stages a corresponding short-windedness, the movement built tellingly to a monumental close. Quick but not overly tense, the Scherzo was at its best in the balletic capering of its central section, if lacking a sense of alarm as the final bars threaten to lose control. The ’Adagio’ seemed over-weighty in its onward progress, as though Gardiner were afraid of over-objectifying its pathos. Here and in the Finale, the LSO’s playing regained its customary fluency and panache: the latter movement had the right insouciance too, though the hectic closing pages were interpreted too literally to drive home their ambivalence. Never quite one of the ’if it’s not in the score, forget it’ fraternity, Gardiner seemed unsure as where the music’s emotional limits actually were – a feature, in retrospect, of this unsatisfying concert as a whole.