Philharmonia/Maazel – 23 January

Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Philharmonia Orchestra
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 23 January, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Beethoven broke the boundaries of symphonic form with the Eroica. Beethoven influenced Berlioz significantly. Berlioz developed the sound and illustrative range of the orchestra. These two symphonies made an apt and instructive coupling of musical evolution.

The impact this music originally had can’t be replicated today. Historically aware renditions go some of the way, of course, but the greatest art is a constant and becomes renewable to successive generations. To return this music to its time – although do we need to? – and perhaps I’m being pedantic, then the conductor would need to observe all repeats (Maazel took none save in the Eroica’s scherzo) and respect niceties of tempo and timbre to echo those of nearly 200 years ago. Not surprisingly, Maazel gave the Eroica with the Philharmonia’s full strings and with quadruple woodwind. Even with ’modern’ instruments, ’authenticity’ can be approximated (cf. Harnoncourt). Maazel makes music for today. Here were two old and trusted symphonic friends, immaculately suited and booted in today’s fashion for a good night out with their contemporaries – us.

Lest my intro be thought critical, I simply state Maazel’s uninfluenced stance, and that, in fact, he led impressive accounts of both works – musical and satisfying. Indeed, the Eroica might be thought understated, not outspoken or radical enough, the ’Marche funèbre’ a blueprint rather than the real thing. The opening movement, lyrical and spacious, but with enough momentum to acknowledge the fast metronome mark, was structurally melded as a complete experience, the music absorbed and put back as a work of perfection. With playing both lithe and refined, meticulously balanced, something more rough-hewn might have revealed more of Beethoven’s consciousness. When Maazel let the horns have their heads – at the march’s climax and the finale’s resplendent summation (the latter included the ’bumper’ and unwritten fourth horn) – it seemed too much given the smooth parameters of elsewhere; so too the occasional phrasal diversion when Maazel otherwise was happy to let the symphony play itself. The funeral procession lacked gravitas – nobody we knew – and Maazel’s relatively swift pacing (15 minutes) nodded towards Beethoven’s timing. And a nod also to the horn threesome for a truly exceptional traversal of the ’trio’, to Gordon Hunt’s oboe solos and Kenneth Smith’s flute-fancy in the finale.

Maazel was in fluent form – technique, memory and physical fitness indivisible – and the Philharmonia’s culture and long relationship with him prompted musicianship not always forthcoming. Poetic ebb and flow lined the Fantastique through its reveries, passions and country scene, the latter the highlight of the concert, the off-stage oboe maybe too distant albeit opening up vistas and adding poignancy to the non-reply that becomes thunder. The ’Un bal’ waltz was played straight, it’s so easy to maul it, and Maazel opted for the ad lib cornet part. For me, ’The March to the Scaffold’ was too fast by miles, if brilliantly done; Berlioz’s very measured metronome should be trusted here (few conductors do) as should his repeat mark (which few conductors take; yet it’s unusual enough to be mandatory). Maazel appreciated the sensationalism of the ’Witches’ Sabbath’ if not necessarily its innovation. If the doom-laden bell could have been more so, and far off placement lost its peal in the melee, the charge to the finishing post was undoubtedly thrilling.

This was in many ways a signal evening for the Philharmonia Orchestra and Lorin Maazel. He presented us with music we know, as we know it, and did so in fastidious terms in harmony with the Philharmonia’s excellence and infinite resource.

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