Philharmonia Orchestra/Segerstam David Fray + Music of Today/Helen Grime

To see the summer sky [World premiere]
Clarinet Concerto [UK premiere]

Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K466
Symphony No.5

Maya Iwabuchi (violin) & Rachel Roberts (viola) [To see the summer sky]

Mark van de Wiel (clarinet)
Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Ryan Wigglesworth

David Fray (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Leif Segerstam

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 21 January, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Maybe the best way to mark the 150th-year since Mahler was born and, during next year, the centenary of his death, is not to play his music at all. Concert programmes are so saturated in his work that there seems nothing left to be original in planning his symphonies, save to play them again … and again. Of course, Mahler himself is not to blame.

Leif SegerstamBut that is to reckon without Leif Segerstam who brought a decidedly individual view to the Fifth Symphony, a plain-speaking account but one unusually highlighted in a way that was fascinating, pertinent and revealing. With an opening funeral march (confidently launched by trumpeter Mark David) that was bleakly described, baleful and resigned but with no lack of vigour for the central outburst, this set the tone for an uncontrived yet mesmeric performance. Never glib or intent on making points, Segerstam’s ability to re-create music in a way that is fresh and illuminating without appearing consciously eccentric allowed this particular Mahler symphony to emerge as an important statement rather than an orchestral showpiece, the second movement’s episodes singled out and generously expressed but not left without connective tissue, the music ground-out rather than glibly paraded, the ‘light’ that briefly appears towards the end a spine-tingling anticipation of things to come. The centrally placed scherzo was playful and exposed, retreating, by turns, to something macabre and idyllic. The Adagietto was remarkably rapt and very spacious (close on twelve minutes, out of a 75-minute performance), withdrawn and then building to overflow, and the finale delighted in Mahler’s contrapuntal dexterity – a Brandenburg Concerto updated – its giocoso elements played up, it search for release kept on hold until the last possible moment, such progress signalled by a longer-than-usual fermata, a pause for thought and then onwards. Segerstam mined this Mahler symphony of many unusual perspectives; he sustained interest and tested reactions throughout, the members of the Philharmonia Orchestra responding as willing partners.

David Fray. Photograph: emiclassics.comMozart’s D minor Piano Concerto began in surreptitious fashion, the tempo relaxed. David Fray (sitting on a Radu Lupu-like hardback chair) made a sensitive and expressive contribution allowing the music its own shape and impulse without appearing aloof, the slow movement a serenade, its stormy episode emerging naturally; cadenzas by Clara Haskil (first movement) and Edwin Fischer enhanced a traversal that was full of personality without imposing on the music. As an encore, Fray offered the last two sections of Schumann’s Kinderszenen to spellbinding effect.

Preceding the concert was Music of Today, the latest recital in the very welcome, free and informal, series of contemporary music programmes that the Philharmonia Orchestra promotes on a regular basis. It was good that Helen Grime (born 1981) had her chance, for on the strength of Virga (launched by the LSO and Yan Pascal Tortelier in 2007, taken up by Oliver Knussen at last year’s Proms, and to be conducted by Pierre Boulez this May in Paris), Grime is a composer well-worth following. Certainly there is an inner logic and an outer appeal to her music. To see the summer sky (for violin and viola, its title from Emily Dickinson) is a set of vignettes playing for about 13 minutes that are in-flight, active, interactive and with a reflective intensity that is haunting, a harmonic bond created between the two instruments, here in the excellent and collegiate hands of Maya Iwabuchi and Rachel Roberts. Clarinet Concerto (the soloist joined by string quartet, double bass, flute, bassoon/contrabassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone and harp) carries its 18 minutes lightly, music that is intricate yet lucid, vividly narrating, melodies and mechanisms intertwining, scintillation and poetry interweaving, and with a chill beauty at times. Mark van de Wiel gave a superb performance with his Philharmonia colleagues, and Ryan Wigglesworth replaced Tim Murray at short notice to conduct with assurance and as if the date had been in his diary for many months.

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