Philharmonia Orchestra/Wolff Gil Shaham – Walton & Holst [Portsmouth Point … The Planets]

Overture, Portsmouth Point
Violin Concerto in B minor
The Planets – Suite for large orchestra, Op.32

Gil Shaham (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Hugh Wolff

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 13 May, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Gil Shaham. Photograph: Christian SteinerConcerts devoted to British music are not that common, so although The Planets is a staple, William Walton’s music has perhaps fallen from a view a little – wholly unjustifiably – and was the main enticement here.

Sadly, Gil Shaham didn’t do Walton’s Violin Concerto (composed for Jascha Heifetz) full justice. Technical bravado was in place but too often was bullish enough to ride roughshod over characterisation (and more important writing in the orchestra, although Hugh Wolff may have been a little too deferential at times); lots of display and little else, and with a response to lyrical music that lacked warmth and a beating heart. Shaham’s propensity to ice-skate around his allotted space on the platform is annoying visually but also compromises dynamics and tonal qualities; here volume and timbre were arbitrary. There were also problems with intonation and timbre in the first movement, Hugh Wolff inviting Shaham to tune at its close; and it was here that some in the audience dragged the concert down by applauding, something that would then dog the rest of the concerto and the whole of The Planets, which became a series of sound-bites. Such intrusiveness interrupts thought-processes – reflections on what has just been listened to and what is about to come.

Hugo Wolff. Photograph: Alexander EnglertIdeally, Hugh Wolff should have addressed those responsible and asked them to refrain from clapping; instead, as Shaham had done earlier, there was even an acceptance of it. One doesn’t expect such invasiveness from a Philharmonia Orchestra audience; and while new concert-goers are of course to be encouraged, a higher level of etiquette and listening skills are needed.

Whatever the merits of this performance of the Holst, the audience’s participation ruined it, not least at the end of ‘Saturn’ – given with lugubrious tread, haunted expression and uncompromising climaxes (the concert’s highlight) – which found applause beginning just before the music died to nothing! Insensitive to say the least. Similarly, the end of the whole work (‘Neptune’) allowed little or no silence once the women’s voices (excellent in backstage balance and ethereal disappearing) were out of earshot, even though Wolff’s arms remained raised. This completed an inconsistent performance in terms of identification, if one conducted with thought and care, and the whole was familiarly played; the organ glissando in ‘Uranus’ went for little though, and there was an ugly (and late) splurge from this instrument in ‘Mars’.

Walton’s brilliant Portsmouth Point Overture had opened the concert in well-judged pace, its rhythmic deftness not always as easeful as this virtuoso music demands, but it was good to hear this far-too-rare gem, full of individuality and youthful confidence.

  • Gil Shaham plays Barber’s Violin Concerto with the Philharmonia on 20 May in Royal Festival Hall
  • Philharmonia Orchestra
  • Philharmonia Orchestra information:
    Freephone 0800 652 6717

  • Southbank Centre

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content