Philharmonia Orchestra Concert – 15th March

Overture – The Queen of Spades
Violin Concerto in D
Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune
La Mer

Joshua Bell (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov

Reviewed by: Mike Langhorne

Reviewed: 15 March, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The Philharmonia trotted out three magnificent war-horses and a delectable but unusual starter to a packed Royal Festival Hall under veteran Russian Yevgeny Svetlanov.

Both the short mood-setting prelude to Tchaikovsky’s penultimate opera and the concerto were informed by taut rhythms, bold colours and a passionate sweep that caught all the emotion and, indeed, torment that we know to be at the heart of Tchaikovsky’s psyche. The Queen of Spades is a tempestuous piece anyway with drama, tragedy and, eventually, death in the story line. Svetlanov gave this five-minute piece its full measure with brooding horns, soulful strings and rich-toned brass. The Philharmonia, in this and the rest of the concert, was in cracking form.

Joshua Bell has made many recordings, but not yet Tchaikovsky’s concerto. This was in many ways a traditional performance, considered, but not lacking in passion. His phenomenal technique can, of course, be taken for granted – absolute security of intonation, clear passage-work but, here, a rather dry tone – in a rendition giving real satisfaction but also the expectation he will find richer and deeper performances in the future. The cadenza was particularly fine with Bell drawing out the high, long-held notes to perfection and providing filigree detail with accuracy and flair.

In Debussy, Svetlanov opted for languorous tempi and muted colours. This Faune was an indolent creature, the hot afternoon sun precluding movement. Kenneth Smith echoed the conductor’s sultry view producing limpid tone in his important flute solos despite Svetlanov’s broad conception. Smith’s breath control is truly amazing!

In La Mer the orchestration is an even greater part of the composing process; Svetlanov’s care for balance and colour reflected this. This La Mer was one of the slowest in my experience. Slow speeds are not a problem provided there is overall authority. Like his late colleague, Celibidache, Svetlanov sometimes has the knack of convincing that a slower-than-usual tempo works. The first movement was certainly measured but impressive. The tempo picked-up in the final movement, the storm really raged and the Philharmonia was given its virtuoso head to bring La Mer to an exciting finish.

  • The Philharmonia’s next Royal Festival Hall concert is on Thursday 29 March at 7.30. Principal Conductor, Christoph von Dohnanyi, conducts two works by Hans Werner Henze – Fraternite (UK premiere) and Fifth Symphony, which sits alongside another Fifth, Beethoven’s. This concert, which forms part of the SBC’s “Voices – Henze at 75” series also includes Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with Yefim Bronfman.
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