Philharmonia Orchestra/Jordan François-Frédéric Guy – Mozart & Mahler 5

Piano Concerto No.21 in C, K467
Symphony No.5

François-Frédéric Guy (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Philippe Jordan

Reviewed by: Matthew Boyden

Reviewed: 13 March, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

London has had its fair share of Mahler in recent months – although the critical reaction to Gergiev’s cycle with the LSO would suggest there has been little to enjoy there – and this Philharmonia Orchestra concert was at least the capital’s third performance of the Fifth Symphony in as many months.

Philippe Jordan. Photograph: J. IfkovitsCritics are, of course, critical, and audience-reaction to Gergiev, as to Philippe Jordan, has been extremely positive. The cheer that greeted the final crash of the last movement was almost as loud as the crash itself. Almost. Had the audience yelled concurrently its approbation the din would still have been dwarfed by the loudest parts of the Philharmonia’s playing.

It is a truism that London’s orchestras are loud, and loud can be good and thrilling – but only when there is a controlling force to bear, and a context in which to appreciate it. The only appreciable context here was close proximity to the launch of a Space Shuttle. While there is, of course, a great deal more to the value of a performance of a work as complex and diverse as Mahler’s Fifth Symphony than its volume, it cannot be denied that the visceral onslaught by the Philharmonia’s brass section all but ruined the work, and the virtue of colleagues’ stunning contributions.

The solo trumpet with which the work begins remained throughout a solo trumpet. Such violent, unthinking playing may well warrant praise for its innate facility, but the harm it did to the score as a whole – and from which it served persistently to distract – was unfailingly depressing. During the first movement Mahler’s juxtaposition of this trumpet with some of the work’s most complex part-writing in the strings resulted in the obliteration of the latter, and set an angry, strident tone for the remainder of the performance. When playing in unison, the trumpets occluded every other part. Even with their bells pointed directly at the audience, and even in partial tutti, the clarinets and oboes were inaudible. Once the trombones were unleashed the performance descended into farce, and resulted in the distension and corruption of Mahler’s ingeniously crafted orchestration. Even the timpanist failed to make much of an impression – although this owed something to his use of ‘soggy’ stick-heads – and whatever part the harp was meant to play in the outer movements would have been inaudible even to the harpist who, inexplicably, sat in front of the trombones. At no point did Jordan seek to suppress the brass, although he frequently held his hand up to the cellos and second violins, the players otherwise required to saw at their instruments like Bolivian lumberjacks

This sort of musical vandalism is ugly, ignorant and damaging, but blame falls away from the players – who did their job with characteristic skill – and onto the conductor. Music is the art of contrast, and the finest conductors are able to generate texture, shape and effect without resorting to inflation or bombast. Mahler’s symphonies are paradigmatically overblown, and the worst that can be done to them is to amplify their essential vulgarity. The music’s power is in the score – to the extent, much cited, that Mahler annotated every imaginable detail of phrasing and colour so as to ensure as much control in his absence (and after his death) as possible. That the symphonies have always invited grandstanding is unremarkable, but such an approach will contribute little either to the work, or to the reputation of its conductor.

It may be said, therefore, that Philippe Jordan’s reputation suffered as much of a hammering as did Mahler’s symphony. His responsibility to the composer – and distantly the audience – was subjugated to self-absorption. In truth, and as he relished demonstrating, Jordan knew the score well, and he gained considerable pleasure from bringing in individual parts. It was this obsession with the irrelevant that rendered this performance so unsatisfying. There was no overriding sense of structure or architecture, and the performance failed to unfold organically as Mahler intended.

Even during the Adagietto Jordan got in the way of the music’s span, which was rendered both as affected and artificial. His tugging at the bar-lines – enforcing tenuti rather than generating rubati – was hideous. Analogously, it was like a painted portrait so photo-realistic that there is nothing to distinguish between the real and the fashioned – save for the absence of life. The finale began well, and at an encouraging pace, but Jordan couldn’t resist interfering. When it seemed like the chorale was going to unfold at pace, and with the benefit of the undoubted energy that preceded it, he stamped on the brakes, and the second half of this most ecstatic of musical statements was robbed completely of its power.

François-Frédéric Guy. Photograph: Guy VivienThis concert, which coupled music used in films (Mahler in “Death in Venice”, Mozart in “Elvira Madigan”) had begun with François-Frédéric Guy giving an understated, intelligent and thoughtful performance of Mozart’s C major Piano Concerto. Guy gave each of Mozart’s phrases their proper shape and emphasis, and resisted the common temptation to fall into cadences with a slackening of tempo. Each note benefited from its proper and considered weight, and Guy took considerable risks with his articulation, some of which was swamped by the Philharmonia. Guy is a gifted musician, as well as a fine pianist, and it was a joy to hear his beguilingly introspective playing of Marc Monnet’s eccentric cadenzas, particularly in the first movement, which made use of the piano’s entire span – and defied memorably the aesthetics as well as the historical provisions of ‘period’-performance etiquette.

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