Philharmonia Orchestra/Segerstam Alice Sara Ott [The Firebird … Paganini Rhapsody … Pictures at an Exhibition]

The Firebird [1919 Suite]
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
Mussorgsky, orch. Ravel
Pictures at an exhibition

Alice Sara Ott (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Leif Segerstam

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 10 October, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Leif Segerstam is a fascinating figure. Larger than life in every sense, he positively radiates musicality and conveys his enthusiasm open-heartedly to both orchestra and listeners.With gestures ranging from tiny to massive, he elicited a wholehearted response from the Philharmonia Orchestra in this matinee performance – whatever his occasionally eccentric demands, especially in Pictures at an Exhibition – and the players clearly enjoy working with him.

The 1919 Firebird Suite was given a most interesting reading, with various details which are often submerged being clearly audible without undue obtrusion, and tempos which seemed consistently and unerringly appropriate. Thus it was gratifying to hear all the glitter one could want in the Firebird’s waltz-variation and limpid flutes opening the ‘Round Dance’, followed by a beautifully expressive oboe solo. By contrast, the ‘Infernal Dance’ was ferocious, with lacerating accents – more than ever a precursor to aspects of The Rite of Spring which was to follow a few years later. The rocking cradle-like rhythm and lamenting bassoon of ‘Lullaby’ were affecting and ‘Finale’ built to a climax both exhilarating and powerful by turns, without ever becoming overblown. I should love to hear Segerstam conduct the original ballet score – or its Suite – with all its orchestral opulence.

The barefooted and elegantly dressed Alice Sara Ott graced the stage for Rachmaninov’s evergreen Paganini Rhapsody, which, in this performance, was anything but a tired old warhorse. Ott and Segerstam approached the music freshly, and the pianist’s slight build belied her ability to coax a full, strong sound from the instrument. Some of the faster variations were delightful in their mercurial quality, whilst weightier moments were given due gravitas, especially the finale with its doom-laden references to the ‘Dies Irae’ plainsong. Perhaps most refreshing – and surprising – of all was the interpretation of the famous Variation XVIII. The simplicity of Ott’s handling of the opening was quite moving and Segerstam encouraged restraint from the strings on their entry, so that the whole was genuinely touching rather than overwhelmingly and excessively indulgent.

Ott then enchanted with an encore – the third of Liszt’s Grandes études de Paganini – known as ‘La campanella’. The formidable technical demands which require extremes of both delicacy and dexterity were not evident in this positively captivating rendition.

This performance of Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an exhibition should have been billed as ‘with additional percussion parts by L. Segerstam’ for I assume it was the conductor who added numerous strokes and rolls for the tam-tam as well as other percussion touches – their contribution to the final ‘Great gate of Kiev’ plus the remainder of the orchestra at full-cry and a Celibidache-like tempo made for a climax that was positively gargantuan.

It was the sort of thing that Leopold Stokowski might have done in a less restrained moment, but preferable to have a performance of full-blooded character that pulsated with life rather than a pallid thing given a routine – if not perfunctory – run-through. Elsewhere, one admired some outstanding solo playing – the saxophone lamented with a judicious hint of vibrato in ‘Old Castle’ – and some intriguing tempo contrasts: monumentally slow for ‘Bydlo’ and very rapid for the ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’, with Ravel’s onomatopoeic clucking sounds deftly delivered. I enjoyed it hugely and hope we will soon have another visit from the intriguing Leif Segerstam.

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