Philharmonia Orchestra/Muti Radu Lupu

The Consecration of the House – Overture, Op.124
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
Mussorgsky, orch. Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition

Radu Lupu (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Riccardo Muti

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 2 December, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Riccardo Muti. © Photograph: Photo ShafflerThe Beethoven and Mussorgsky/Ravel featured in Riccardo Muti’s first appearance with the Philharmonia Orchestra (during its ‘New’ phase) – on 2 December 1972. 35 years later to the day, Muti and the Philharmonia celebrated a 35-year relationship. That first concert, at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, was broadcast live – and was memorable (even now). It appears that Muti was offered the vacant Principal Conductor’s role (the aged Otto Klemperer having stepped down) between the dress rehearsal and the concert.

Such insights were apparent during the pre-concert event reminiscences on Muti and his relationship with the Philharmonia. He continues to galvanise the Orchestra, as Beethoven’s magnificent overture demonstrated, its ceremony brought off with grand sweep, begun with sweet expression, the increasing layers of orchestral sound immaculately balanced, giving way to a passage of deeply eloquent benediction before growing to Handelian scintillation and purveyed with inner vitality. Pictures at an Exhibition, however, for all that Philharmonia was on its mettle and demonstrating the utmost responsiveness – the many solos played to a very high order – brought a trade-off of characterisation for discipline, which fed the ears very gratifyingly but didn’t always satisfy the imagination. This was ‘orchestral theatre’ of a high order, dynamics and tone-colour wonderfully variegated, balance and detail carefully crafted and sonic splendour meticulously sounded. In both works, but especially the Beethoven, Muti’s mix of fidelity and fresh re-creation proved compelling and rewarding.

Radu Lupu. ©John GarfieldThe Mussorgsky enjoyed nine double basses – the ‘normal’ eight rather than six would probably have benefited the Beethoven (although textural lucidity here was a joy) – with the six seeming ideally weighted for the concerto, a rare appearance by Radu Lupu, his trademark waiting-room chair in place, who gave a masterclass of gentle, unforced pianism, dynamics pared down and getting even quieter. The orchestra wonderfully supported this rapt, lyrical account – details and articulations often passed over were here revealed due to measured tempos and a pianist that accommodates orchestration in an uncommonly generous manner. Yet for all Lupu’s magic, his rapt lyricism, his poetic shaping and shading (during which the occasional fortissimo really meant something and coughing, of which there were numerous examples, was a gross impertinence) there was also a need for a little more volatility.

Yet, as he has done in London at least twice before in this concerto (once with Mariss Jansons and once with Colin Davis), Lupu’s refusal to treat the piano as a percussion instrument and his searching inwardness paid many dividends, not always enough to sustain the whole, but with a subtlety and divinity that makes Lupu such a special artist, here forming a Holy Trinity with the Philharmonia and Muti, the conductor also sympathetically exploring Schumann’s interior world.

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