Philharmonia Current and Venerable

Iambic Stutter
Headless Butterfly
Song for Seven Instruments

All world premieres

Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Clark Rundell

Don Juan, Op.20
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73

Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Walter Weller


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 June, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

These two concerts made for wide-ranging and good listening: four premieres by graduate students, all of which proved diverting, followed by a comforting mix of timeless masterpieces.

The brief for this particular “Music of Today” project was for four composers (representing the Royal College of Music, Royal Northern College of Music, Royal Academy of Music, and King’s College, London) to write a short piece in response to Janáček’s String Quartet No.2 (Intimate Letters) and to do so using the same quirky scoring that Janáček chose for his concertino, that is piano, two violins, viola, clarinet, bassoon and horn. Each composer worked with Julian Anderson (MOT’s Artistic Director), Clark Rundell, and the members of the Philharmonia Orchestra; and each had a few words with Julian before their pieces were premiered.

Encouragingly, each work was distinctive. Jordan Hunt (born 1982) employed a syllabic basis – short-long, weak-strong – which brought forth some angular, even gnarled writing, the long-held notes reminding of Copland. The winding-down seemed a reflection on previous events. Oliver Weeks (1978) cited “speech-melodies” as his inspiration, through a recording of a friend reading a poem in Bengali. Headless Butterfly proved, maybe, the highlight of this fine foursome, being jazzy and abrasive, atmospheric, suggestive, and enticingly ‘free’.

Saed Haddad (1972) contributed the briefest piece, almost over as soon as it began. Individuus concerns solo and collective experience, and ambiguity, in music punchy and pugnacious, which seems to peter out to collective agreement. Maybe not! Helen Grime (1981) contributed the most beguiling music, the closing, slow chorale-like music hinted at in the beginning and worked towards through timbres fragile and sonorous.

Under the sympathetic direction of Clark Rundell, the Philharmonia’s musicians gave every opportunity for these works to shine, which they did.

Later, Walter Weller (replacing Wolfgang Sawallisch) began with a rather rotund account of Don Juan, its arduous flow inhibited by undue underlining, though Weller’s experience as an orchestra leader (of the Vienna Philharmonic) stood him in good stead: a simple gesture launched the difficult opening with perfect unanimity. Talking of leaders, it was nice to see Bradley Creswick guesting with his former orchestra; he produced a suitably seductive violin solo, and Christopher Cowie stole the show with a raptly beautiful oboe soliloquy. Generally, Weller went for opulence rather than display, and his subtle use of the cymbal, purely for colour rather than bandstand bashing, was a real plus.

Frank Peter Zimmermann gave an excellent account of the Mendelssohn that was in-scale, fleet, not without passion (the first movement’s direction of Allegro molto appassionato unerringly caught), integrated, song-like and effortlessly dextrous. There was also an element of toughness, altogether appropriate given Mendelssohn’s original version of the work (Zimmermann of course played the revised, standard publication), and he explored the first movement cadenza to its advantage. The accompaniment was a model of tact and support.

Then Zimmermann played an encore, thought amusing by some, which was trivial in the extreme, a set of vacuous variations on the tune we know as the National Anthem. However brilliant his display of pyrotechnics, Zimmermann didn’t need to show-off. He simply undid the impressive showing he had made in the Mendelssohn. His spoken introduction seemed to by-pass naming the composer, probably wise, but I could have done without his tactless reference to the England football score, which rather spoilt watching the highlights later in the evening.

Walter Weller’s sense of tradition was to the fore for the Brahms, given with spacious speeds and refulgent textures, with an orchestral weight often denied Brahms today in this age of ‘enlightened’ scholarship. There was no doubting the eloquence of Weller’s time-taken approach, even his rhapsodising, although the line of the work was rarely threatened, and the finale was trenchant rather than rapid-fire. Just occasionally, as in Don Juan, Weller retarded forward direction for no good reason, but there was much that was glorious – and it was welcome to hear Brahms given with lustre and dignity.

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