LSO/Harding – 3 – Boulez, Ravel & Berlioz

Piano Concerto in G
Luke Bedford
Outblaze the Sky [LSO/UBS Sound Adventures commission: World premiere]
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Gareth Davies (flute)

Lang Lang (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Daniel Harding

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 12 April, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Before embarking on a three-week tour of China and Japan with Daniel Harding, the London Symphony Orchestra continued its four-concert Barbican Hall series with the conductor.

Pierre Boulez’s short Mémoriale (1985, for solo flute, three violins, two violas, cello and two horns), which is an off-cut from …explosante-fixe… (now withdrawn?), made an intimate beginning to the concert. Gareth Davies, given no billing seemingly, was the sensitive flautist, as part of performance that revealed the music as exquisitely crafted and, for all the state of flux that sustains the 6-minute duration, revealed the quiet and fading close as inevitable. (Harding surely didn’t need to stand on the podium to direct this small ensemble!)

There followed from Lang Lang a superficial account of the solo part of Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto – he dominated the outer movements through being too loud and distracted with unconvincing dynamic contrasts, various lurches and gratuitous banged-out accents. The Adagio assai was crippled by a tempo that brought the movement almost to a standstill; similarly the ‘dreamy’ interlude of the first movement also became tedious. Ravel’s essential ‘simplicity’ was totally undone in this horribly contrived performance, the LSO not at its best either – the highlight was a trombone glissando in the first movement, which seemed here a well-aimed ‘raspberry’ at Lang Lang’s antics! He played an encore, “Chinese Tango”, in exactly the same way!

Beginning part two of the concert was Luke Bedford’s Outblaze the Sky, the latest in the laudable LSO/UBS commissions from UK-based composers that are not revealed until the concert itself. The spoken introduction was rather anodyne. Suffice it to say that Bedford said he’d been playing with a few chords – which is what the piece sounded like – and that it had something to do with the novel “The White Hotel”, a spoken précis of that tome not seeming to relate to the score itself – nor the piece’s title – a curious inconclusive miniature that at least demanded a second hearing (if Oliver Knussen had been conducting that would no doubt have happened!) and in which sounds such as bowed marimba have long since been ‘new’.

Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, here spread over 60 minutes, received, for the most part, a very interesting and engrossing performance, full of colour and expression and finely judged balances (antiphonal violins adding to the aural pleasure). The only miscalculations were in the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ finale: the ill-timed speeding-up in the final bars, and the wholly ineffective bell, which was lightweight, too distant (off-stage), barely audible (when the heavy brass got going), with some strokes out of sync and, I believe, not played at all! Up to this point, Harding had shaped a well-considered view of the music – seeking a narrative rather than presenting a showpiece.

Maybe the opening slow introducing was a little somnambulant, but pastoral ‘Reverie’ was well suggested and if ‘Passions’ took a while to develop, this seemed a carefully calibrated increase in emotion for a more intense repeat of the exposition. The return to slumber was beautifully done; a shame that the repose was upset by applause. No expense spared for ‘Un bal’ – four harps! – and Rod Franks gave a very stylish rendition of the ad lib cornet obbligato. ‘Scène aux champs’, unfortunately peppered by too many coughs, was daringly slow (18 minutes), but very convincing, and Christine Pendrill gave an eloquent cor anglais solo, the ‘distant beloved’ oboe responses pertinently balanced from backstage. ‘March to the Scaffold’ was superbly done at a very deliberate tempo (but it’s what Berlioz wanted) – it could have been even more deliberate to create even greater malevolence – with the repeat also observed, this movement took on greater significance than is usually the case.

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