Philharmonia Orchestra Concert – 26th May

Angels and Visitations
Symphony No.1 in E minor

Dame Felicity Lott (soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Mikko Franck

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 26 May, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Aged 21, Mikko Franck hopefully has many decades of international music-making ahead of him. Time is on his side – if, for whatever reason, his turning up at 8 o’clock for a 7.30 concert can be regarded as ’one of those things’, his distended Sibelius is quite another matter.

The word-of-mouth excitement that preceded Franck’s first CD last year was endorsed by his conducting therein of Sibelius’s Lemminkainen Legends and En Saga – reservations aside, there was much to impress. Making what I presume to be his London debut at this concert, Helsinki-born Franck led an individual but ill-conceived Sibelius One.

That this was a markedly personal interpretation is encouraging; one questions though how he reached his decisions. Franck is hugely gifted, serious of intent, and businesslike. His conducting style is poised and assured, economical in gesture with a clear-as-day technique; his longish baton extends his diminutive frame. He eschews a podium – he’s on the shop-floor with the players – and his acknowledgement of the audience is akin to ’thanks, let’s get on with it’. He requires a chair, used for a few seconds for its intended purpose; otherwise it’s a prop for him to pivot 180 degrees between first violins and cellos.

That he can control a large orchestra with sureness was amply demonstrated in Einojuhani Rautavaara’s first ’angel’ piece (1978), a 25-minute symphonic poem contrasting ethereal chorales with savage outbursts and eerie atmosphere. It seemed too long here; Rautavaara’s recourse to stock-gestures to interrupt the meditation could be cut to leave something compact and more telling. There are though many pages that compel attention – Rautavaara’s mosaic of sound and novel instrumental effects – not least blowing air through trombones – his translucent and imaginative scoring (including four Wagner Tubas) and his patient building of a long-evolving violin melody that slowly ascends – Rautavaara is such a distinctive composer.

That Franck too has a keen ear for texture, timbre and colour – and for really quiet playing (he also has a less worthy high-decibel threshold) – was evident throughout Sheherazade, which found Felicity Lott in fine voice, relishing the words – also losing some to phrasal legato – always illustrative and communicative. ’Asie’ was extended to 12 minutes (it’s usually less than 10), Franck holding it together convincingly. He eased the pace back even further, to a standstill of promise, for ’Je voudrais voir des calumets entre des bouches’, Lott invited to savour Ravel’s inspiration; she did, movingly. Curious then that in the greatest setting of this cycle – ’L’indifferent’ (a wonderful example of interior thinking) – where Franck could have been slower, smoother and quieter, which really would have suspended time to hypnotic effect, he wasn’t. Ken Smith’s lucidity in the middle song gave especial pleasure – enchanted flute indeed.

The Sibelius, as I’ve indicated, was singular but not really persuasive. This was a 50-minute traversal, one full of atmosphere and given with an operatic force; it was also one part-illuminated, part-hampered by Franck’s retards and accelerandos: where he could hang-time, insert a comma, ’bump’ a note in a phrase, extend a silent bar – he did. Rhythm, if not constant, was always clean, sometimes clinical. The slow movement dragged, the first found him fracturing the whole into paragraphs with distracting mid-sentence punctuation. But it was his handling of the brooding melody that begins halfway through the last movement where my reaction was at its most querying. To say it was slow would be to under-suggest what Franck did; it was more a question of would the next note arrive. To have to journey through this twice – this music returns in supposed triumph at the close – was too much. Had he initially presented this episode ’normally’, then given it the will-we-ever-make-it reprise – this might have worked.

My concern, I should stress, has nothing to do with Franck’s slowness. I write as a devotee of Celibidache, not least his final years in Munich; rarely did Celi lose the plot – movement-timings that read as unbelievable usually convinced in reality – there was a lead-on, a relationship and a resolution. Franck’s handling of the last half of Sibelius’s finale, however unusual, and despite his authority in obtaining what he wanted, meandered to nowhere.

There are perhaps influences that he has yet to shake off. Franck’s interventionist approach might come from Bernstein; Franck’s specific string-sound (he was initially a violinist) reminds of Karajan. Another model might just be Celibidache – if so, Franck has failed to grasp that an ultra-slow tempo (or ones unrelated) is exactly that unless acoustic-related reportage and phrasal linkage is perceived; if not, as here, structural damage will result.

There’s no doubting that Franck is a conductor with a particular view; he’s a fascinating musician. Let’s see how he conducts Sibelius One in a few years time.

  • The Philharmonia Orchestra’s next RFH concerts are with Lorin Maazel. This Thursday, 31 May, Maazel conducts Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 (Arcadi Volodos) and Mahler 5. On Sunday, 3 June, Mozart’s A major Violin Concerto (K219, Gil Shaham) partners Bruckner 8
  • The 3 June concert is preceded, at 6p.m, by Music of Today – new pieces by postgraduate students from the Royal Academy of Music – free admission to RFH
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