Philharmonia Orchestra/Hugh Wolff (13 March)

Beethoven
Leonore Overture No.1
Violin Concerto in D, Op.61
Debussy
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Stravinsky
The Rite of Spring

Gil Shaham (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Hugh Wolff


Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 13 March, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The programme fell into two halves: Beethoven before the interval, and ballet music after it. For Beethoven, Hugh Wolff is of classical persuasion. He induced the Philharmonia Orchestra to play in a controlled, miniaturist style. Leonore No.1 was jettisoned from Beethoven’s 1805 opera, Leonore – which a decade later would become Fidelio – because the composer regarded it as lightweight. So, this was an interesting, enterprising choice, yet under Wolff’s baton the opening tension seemed over-extended – of suspense for its own sake. The ensuing release was modestly skittish but not exuberant.

The Violin Concerto, from a year later, was played in similar mood. The opening four timpani strokes declared that a delicately conceived chamber performance of a rare order. The long, grave introduction prepared elegantly for Gil Shaham’s entrance. (He replaced Kyung-Wha Chung.) Both were things of refined beauty, as was the moderated remainder to this stately movement. The Larghetto pursued its course sublimely and serenely. Shaham played with an enraptured beauty, with such sensitive nuance. Wolff and Shaham were at one in their view of the work, a musical partnership in living evidence throughout this exquisite performance.

I really enjoyed the tight focus and clear sight of Wolff’s Faune. Debussy’s music had a pulse – especially in the places where there seems to be none (a feature of Debussy’s writing that too many conductors miss – but not Boulez, of course). Wolff’s beat was strict but not insensitive (just as it should be). As a result, we heard tension, like the winding of a spring. The afternoon was not merely and tritely languorous: it had shimmering, suspenseful heat. Achieving and sustaining this mood was a commendable feat.

In The Rite of Spring, Wolff was akin to a ringmaster. He revelled in Stravinsky’s huge eclectic orchestra. Again and again he cracked his whip, commanding his circus of loud and extraordinary instruments to perform: piccolos, alto flute, E flat clarinet, bass clarinets, contrabassoon, Wagner tubas, D trumpet, bass trumpet, bass trombone, two timpanists – as well, incomparably, the usual orchestral suspects.

The Philharmonia responded brilliantly. The occasion became a showpiece for London’s finest to blazon its prowess. Wolff turned the ballet into a concerto for orchestra: the playing was showy, grand, colourful and exhilarating. (Wolff seemed less interested in the sounds that the strings make.) This was music still to dance to. It was riotous – no need for mayhem in the stalls: it was there on the platform!

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