Philharmonia Winds perform Robin O’Neill’s arrangements of/from Bach, Debussy and Bartók – O’Neill conducts Bach’s Fizz Overture; Debussy Preludes for piano; Bartók Magyar Suite [sic]
Symphony No.40 in G-minor, K550
Symphony No.3 in E-flat, Op.55 (Eroica)
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: 14 April, 2019
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
In a pre-concert performance, there were three highly imaginative wind-band arrangements based on music by Bach, Debussy and Bartók created and conducted by Robin O’Neill (the Philharmonia’s principal bassoon). The ensemble comprised a standard woodwind group plus two extra clarinets and four horns to which was added piccolo, cor anglais, bass clarinet and contrabassoon. The individuality of each instrument was featured and especially noticeable was the way in which bass clarinet was given an individual melodic voice. The brief Bach Overture is grand in a gentle way and featured flowing clarinet underpinning – and featuring rich scoring of lower instruments. Preludes from Debussy’s Books I & II for piano followed; a good basis for the arranger’s colourful style, skilfully enhancing the composer’s recognisable close harmonies, celebrated in particular in ‘Voiles’. The ever-popular ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ was led by flute and given a most sensitive representation; and bassoons added great humour to the ‘Interrupted Serenade’. The Bartòk arrangements entitled Magyar Suite comprises an assembly of twelve short piano pieces and the fifteen-piece ensemble characterised each in an original manner; bassoons had a ball, there were many delights, and the biggest tour de force was the highly colourful representation of the fierce Allegro barbaro.
Several of these Philharmonia players were then involved in Herbert Blomstedt’s reading of Mozart’s Fortieth Symphony. Definition of inner lines typified the clear-cut nature of the detail. Although the revised edition was used in which smoother-toned clarinets replace some of the original oboe lines, the forthright nature of the playing avoided any mellowing of the drama – in particular the slightly rustic tone of Mark van de Wiel’s solo in the Finale ensured that it was no-less poignant than had the oboe part been used. Blomstedt’s way with Mozart convinces because once having set a tempo he sticks to it. The opening Molto allegro was not particularly rapid but the crispness of the string chording and the dramatic manner in which the themes were phrased gave a feeling of unrelenting drive. All repeats were observed and in the Minuet both were made after as well as before the Trio. This movement responded to Blomstedt’s absolute strictness of tempo and its serious nature was fully expressed. Simply by playing what is in the score and without affectation is typical of his style and this philosophy continued throughout the Finale, driven firmly yet expressively to an exciting conclusion.
Increased to fuller strength for the ‘Eroica’ (only six double basses though) the Philharmonia’s powerful string section helped bring the sound forward to the early-nineteenth-century. Performing practice of that era was respected: Antoine Siguré used a set of period timpani, Jason and Chris Evans used natural trumpets and Blomstedt, as always, had first and second violins placed antiphonally. There was no doubling of the wind instruments. This approach resulted in a convincingly Beethovenian sound, the natural trumpets have the advantage of sounding forceful but their weightiness blends better with the horns than would be the case with modern narrow-bore keyed trumpets.
This was Beethoven on a large scale – from the sweeping grandeur of the opening movement as represented in this performance it is perhaps possible to regard the hero to which the symphonic title refers as one of nobility held in high regard. After angrily retracting his original dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte, the memory of the great man to which Beethoven was referring is likely to have been Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia. Although not slow in tempo, the stateliness of the opening Allegro con brio seemed to represent Beethoven’s tribute. Again a steady forward sweep typified the conductor’s approach and the unusual harmonic swerve into the exposition repeat was all part of the continuous flow.
I was greatly impressed with the unrelenting steadiness of the ‘Funeral March’; such an approach dramatises the deeply-felt seriousness of the music. Vivid horn-playing was featured in the following movement’s triumphant Trio section, the violent syncopations in the return of the Scherzo given with exciting force and convincingly, Blomstedt drove into the Finale with hardly any pause. Clear detail was of the essence here; Beethoven’s early fragments anticipating the nature of main theme were swept into the structure and the sense of drive was exhilarating. It was interesting to refer to the recording that Blomstedt made in December 2014 with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra where the long Quasi andante section was rather deliberate. This was not the case with the Philharmonia where that section moved forward with greater impulse. Clearly Blomstedt has known the work for years as his direction of it without a score (or baton for that matter) indicates but his every performance does not need to be identical.