Philharmonia Bělohlávek Vogt

Má vlast – Šárka; Vltava
The Golden Spinning Wheel, Op.109
Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15

Lars Vogt (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 April, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This was quite a weekend for pianists. On the Friday Grigory Sokolov gave a recital of remarkable artistic accomplishment – extraordinary, to say the least. On Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, Daniel Barenboim twice played both of Brahms’s concertos with the LSO. My colleague Ying Chang reviewed Sokolov (his sentiments absolutely shared by this writer) and the first of the Barenboim concerts. I caught the Barenboim repeat, which included, to my mind, a remarkably compelling, spacious and searching account of the D minor Concerto, fallible yes, but brimful of endeavour and individuality. It was this work that would close the Philharmonia Orchestra’s concert a few hours later.

Originally the Philharmonia had engaged Piotr Anderszewski for several performances of this titanic concerto; fortunate, then, to have Lars Vogt able to take on all the concerts, including one in Porto.

Leading up to the Brahms was an attractive collection of Czech works in which Jiří Bělohlávek was a persuasive guide, save, surprisingly, in Vltava, which was harried at the opening (to the flautists’ discomfort) and which lacked elemental release. The broad tune for the river itself was pushed along and lacking nobility. Later, the peasants’ dance was short of earthiness but the moonlit episode was quite magical. But this performance also served to underline why Bělohlávek is such a welcome visitor to the Philharmonia; his culture, integrity and refined musical judgement is en rapport with the Philharmonia’s own. This is a conductor, for example, who uses cymbal clashes as colour rather than bandstand-like crashes and who takes trouble to vary dynamics and tone from the trombones (less loud brass is always welcome!). Šárka (rebellious Amazon maiden, to more or less quote the description in the programme) was a dramatic opener; no showpiece, this, as Bělohlávek dug deep into the music’s folkloristic seriousness.

Similarly he pulled off a really marvellous account of Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel, one of the composer’s four musical illustrations of ballads by Erben. Irrespective of the scenario (girl murdered by stepmother who substitutes her own daughter to marry the king … a spinning wheel bartered for the dead girl’s body-parts … happy ending though!), the music is full of invention and description and orchestrated with consummate flair. Allowing for the slight suspicion that Bělohlávek may have tweaked a few minor cuts, the performance was characterful, vivid (without being overstated) and blissfully secure and well balanced, the numerous felicities of Dvořák’s writing relished yet integrated into the whole.

After an appropriately rough-hewn orchestral introduction, Lars Vogt seemed initially content to offer a confident if rather streamlined account of the solo part (certainly in relation to Barenboim’s deeply personal if fallible traversal just a few hours earlier). Yet, leading up to the soloist’s double octaves at the first movement’s midpoint, Bělohlávek conjured a glowing sound from the Philharmonia and gave the music a compelling largesse not always afforded it at this moment. Such elevation informed the rest of the concerto, whether in the sotto voce return of the pianist’s chorale, the remarkably sustained and eloquent Adagio that was a rich expressional marriage between soloist, conductor and orchestra – a profound benediction, in fact – and a fiery and gloriously cumulative finale in which Vogt, like Barenboim, not so much played the notes but extracted them with indomitable spirit.

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