Philharmonia Orchestra/Philippe Jordan (16 March)

Overture in D, In the Italian style, D590
Sinfonia concertante in E flat for violin and viola, K364
Symphony No.4 in G

Pekka Kuusisto (violin) &
Anna Kreetta Turunen (viola)

Joan Rodgers (soprano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Philippe Jordan

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 16 March, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Just occasionally one encounters a concert about which there is little positive to report. This was such a concert. The line-up promised much. Philippe Jordan (Armin’s son) is currently conducting Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah at Covent Garden and his future engagements include concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic. Pekka Kuusisto has already appeared with major orchestras and has made acclaimed recordings. Joan Rodgers is a much-loved singer at the height of her career.

The concert opened promisingly with a slimmed-down Philharmonia Orchestra giving a sensitively pointed account of the Schubert overture (one of two In the Italian style), its introduction sharing material with the Rosamunde overture and the closing bars with the ’smaller’ C major symphony, No.6.

The Mozart sustains a wide variety of treatments. For example one has heard many great artists – Stern and Zukerman, Brainin and Schidlof – give it greater weight and intensity than maybe it merits. There is undoubtedly a case for a lighter, more consciously ’authentic’ interpretation. This was not it. At least the artists of previous generations usually gave us the actual notes before adding their own gloss. This duo, especially the violinist, was so busy giving a visual performance that playing the notes came a poor second. Pitch wavered – the soloists opening entry was actually painful to the ear – note values were consistently skimped, phrases were pulled out of shape and there was absolutely no sense of line. Jordan’s inflated accompaniment did not help. The Andante’s operatic ambiguities were turned into a relentless plod, every passing sf marking seized on – for once the Philharmonia did not sound like the great Mozart orchestra that it is. Such limited pleasures as there were came from Turunen’s mellow viola, especially when playing solo. If this performance represents the future of Mozart playing, then it is clearly time to pass over to the other side.

Talking of Heaven, the best thing about this Mahler 4 was the protracted silence at its close, Joan Rodgers at least having done her best with the child’s vision of heaven despite Jordan’s unsympathetic accompaniment. This one-time most popular of Mahler’s symphonies is no easy work to bring off, containing more pitfalls in the first 70 bars than many symphonies in their entire duration. In Hoffnung’s “Postcards from Tyrolean Landladies” there is one that reads “Beside the house runs a savage gorge. Please drop in”. My sentiments exactly. Jordan’s initially leisurely tempo went out the window at the first Frisch marking and the movement never recovered its essential easy-going main tempo.

There is a strong element of the grotesque in Mahler 4 but despite marking the clarinets to be played bells in air (Schalltrichter auf) one doubts that Mahler envisaged such an unpleasant sound as produced by the clarinets, nor the comic scramble with which the first movement concluded. Much better was Maya Iwabuchi’s excellent ’Death’s Fiddle’ solo in the second movement – but here again Jordan marred things by insensitive dynamics, the heavenly D major episode at the movement’s heart ushered in by a hefty thwack on the harp instead of pp as marked. Devoid of any restraint, the slow movement was simply a case of diminishing returns and one had turned-off long before its, here, crude climax.

Mahler is undoubtedly box-office but orchestras would do well to avoid programming him with relatively inexperienced conductors unless they have already shown a marked affinity for the composer. Faux-naïve the Fourth’s world may be – but of all Mahler’s symphonies it contains the largest number of pitfalls: the world as seen through the eyes of a child maybe but the Brothers Grimm are never far away and many dangers lie in wait for the unwary conductor.

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