Philharmonia Orchestra – 5th May

Balakirev orch. Liapunov
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
The Enchanted Lake, Op.62
Le poème de l’extase, Op.54

Viktoria Mullova (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Alexander Lazarev

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 5 May, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This concert was to have been conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov, whose death last Friday sadly ended a distinguished association with the Philharmonia, as well as other London orchestras. Colin Anderson’s obituary reflects the respect and affection felt for the last great Russian conductor of his generation: for myself, the experience of seeing him guiding the strings of the BBC Symphony Orchestra with such feeling in the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, at the Barbican just last month, will remain a cherished memory.

Rather misleadingly entitled “The Mighty Handful”, this oddly – but attractively-assorted concert – opened with Balakirev’s infamous Islamey, in the orchestration by Sergei Liapunov. The piano original stands or falls by how well its virtuosity is conveyed, and though this orchestral incarnation inevitably diffuses this quality, the atmosphere of this Caucasian evocation comes through vividly. Alexander Lazarev ’gave it the gun’, resulting in a garish counterpart to Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso.

Viktoria Mullova has long been associated with the Sibelius concerto, and her performance here had the technical control and dynamic finesse long associated with her. Admittedly, interplay with the orchestra in parts of the lengthy opening movement was not quite flawless, the coda in particular straining the limits of co-ordination. In the central ’Adagio’, however, Mullova’s control of the over-arching melodic line made light of its melodic plainness, while the polonaise ’Finale’ allowed her full scope to indulge in ’meaningful’ virtuosity. Certainly the nerve-tingling closing pages seemed effortless in their momentum.

The second half featured two vastly contrasting Russian orchestral pieces. Anatoly Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake (1909) is a haunting soundscape whose twilit sonorities are made for the purpose. Lazarev conducted with suitable restraint, and was surprisingly controlled for much of Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy.

Times have changed since commentators poured over the theosophical background to this work in search of metaphysical profundity: this is a depiction of physical emotion – albeit not so pure and simple – clothed in resplendent yet fastidious orchestral textures, as well as being an ingenious take on sonata form. The closing minutes make explicit the extra-musical motivation, Lazarev milking the histrionics rather too obviously. Engrossing even so, with lead trumpeter Mark David rightly called centre-stage to share the applause.

  • The Philharmonia’s next RFH concert is on 23 May – Paul Daniel conducts Dvorak 7, Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with Till Fellner, and Janacek’s Jealousy
  • Box Office: 020 7960 4201
  • Philharmonia Orchestra Box Office: 0800 652 6717 (freephone)
  • Read Colin Anderson’s memory of Svetlanov here

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