Philharmonia of the Nations

Stravinsky
The Rite of Spring
Mahler
Symphony No.1 in D

Philharmonia of the Nations
Justus Frantz


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 6 March, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Three years ago this week the impressively named Philharmonia of the Nations gave an outstanding concert at the Royal Festival Hall under its conductor, Justus Frantz, so it was with keen anticipation that one looked forward to the orchestra’s Cadogan Hall appearance.

Originally billed as the ‘Emperor’ Concerto (with Derek Han) and Mahler’s First Symphony, the sometimes called ‘Titan’, it was with some trepidation that one learned the programme had been changed to The Rite of Spring in place of the Beethoven, especially given the size of Cadogan Hall.

The vision of a young, professional orchestra drawn from all nations had its genesis in an idea of Leonard Bernstein’s after the fall of the Berlin Wall. By 1995 Justus Frantz had convinced a sufficient number of supporters and sponsors for the idea to become a reality and he has been indissolubly linked with the group ever since. Musicians from over 40 countries come together to form this unique ensemble, although to judge from this concert, the orchestra’s current membership is perhaps rather too heavily skewed towards the former Eastern Bloc.

The choice of The Rite of Spring for the concert’s opening was questionable on two counts. As an opener it taxes any orchestra (even the Chicago Symphony, which I once heard play it as a starter with Solti), giving the musicians no time to warm up; and while Frantz’s beat is mercifully clear and unfussy, it is also distinctly utilitarian. Though he can get an orchestra through the piece, there was a certain monotony and an inability to build or manage tensions over longer spans. Also there were tuning issues in both winds and brass – especially in the lugubrious opening of ‘Part 2’ – which really needed to be sorted out, the trumpet section being particularly insecure. By contrast, the strings were uniformly excellent, crisp and sinewy, and the percussion section added a propulsive kick to proceedings.

Far more satisfactory was the Mahler. Again, there were individual moments of weakness in the playing – flaky horns in the becalmed opening – but there was also much to relish, a characterful first flute throughout and rustic ‘Knaben Wunderhorn’ winds in the (second movement) Ländler’s Trio. Particularly successful was the mock ‘Funeral March’ that is the third movement, its various contrasting sections better integrated than usual and the whole having a chamber music delicacy. Interestingly, in this relatively small hall the finale was much less uncomfortable than one might have imagined. In part this may have had to do with the slightly reduced string section – two desks less than normal – but also the less than powerful brass.

One quite specific criticism – the lead-in to the finale’s extended string tune is carefully marked ppp and the theme itself pp; here, both were taken at a throbbing f. Otherwise this was a thoroughly decent middle-of-the-road Mahler 1 with few interpretative quirks and much to commend it.

What do you play as an encore after such a work? Of course! Milhaud’s hilariously surreal mixture of tangos, maxixes, sambas and Fado – Le boeuf sur le toit – all 15 minutes of it! Delicious!

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