Philharmonia Orchestra – Beethoven & Lutoslawski

Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60

David Cohen (cello)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Pedro Halffter

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 22 February, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

The novel combination of Beethoven and Lutoslawski combined with the lack of a ‘name’ soloist may have accounted for a number of empty seats at this concert. If so, those who stayed away did themselves out of something exceptional, a performance of a contemporary work given with real passion and finesse combined with excellently played Beethoven.

The 36-year-old Pedro Halffter is presumably a scion of the Halffter family which has included the composer and conductor Ernesto (born 1905), and his nephew the conductor Cristobal (born 1930); he has already conducted an impressive range of orchestras and an eclectic mix of repertoire (including Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius”) and clearly knows his business. By one of those delightful ironies, the concert opened with the Overture to Egmont which celebrates the Netherlands throwing off the hated Spanish yoke in 1567, the local populace having risen up against its oppressors following Count Egmont’s beheading … a moment graphically described in musical terms in the Overture … and hardly, one would have thought, the most obvious piece for a Spanish conductor. Be that as it may, it received a straightforward, well-played and dramatic performance, not the last word in visionary Beethoven but impressively clear and committed.

Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto – undoubtedly the reason for the less than full house – received a wholly outstanding reading and was the evening’s high-point. It is a rare indeed to experience a ‘difficult’ work – commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society, it received its first performance from Rostropovich in 1970 – given with such wholehearted passion and precision from all concerned. The hugely demanding solo part – it opens with an extended cadenza – was carried off by David Cohen, the Philharmonia’s magnificent principal cello, with enormous security and aplomb, whilst Halffter’s remarkably confident direction of the orchestra’s tricky interjections was an object lesson in what should be conducted (and, just as importantly, what should not). Although the work’s scoring is for a large orchestra, and includes. a large percussion section, part of the music’s fascination lies in Lutoslawski’s unlikely instrumental combinations – at one point the cello is accompanied by clarinet, harp, various drums and pizzicato strings – and its unusual structure (basically four discrete sections broken up by angry interjections from the brass) works remarkably well, especially in a performance as good as this one which worked up a formidable momentum.

Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony received a splendidly non-fussy forward-moving performance that eschewed interpretative point-scoring. It was certainly fleet of foot – but it had the not inconsiderable advantage of being for the most part excellently played with clearly terraced dynamics and a driving momentum; the finale, although exhilarating, was definitely more than the marked Allegro ma non troppo with the consequence that the bassoonist had difficulty with his solo and, at this tempo, the movement’s ending was something of a muddle. Otherwise there were many virtues, not least the clarity and precision of the orchestra’s response and a full complement of repeats.

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