Philharmonia Orchestra/Zander Gabriela Montero

Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Gabriela Montero (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Benjamin Zander

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 26 September, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Whenever I attend a concert conducted by Benjamin Zander, a question crosses my mind: is this man a genius or a megalomaniac? He has huge personality and drive and is no lightweight musically; he studied with Imogen Holst and spent the summers of his early years with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears at their home in Aldeburgh. One may criticise Zander on tempo or style but you can be sure that whatever he does in music he has a very good reason for it – nothing ever happens by chance.

Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto has, like many other great works, suffered due to its popularity. There are a vast number of recordings available, many too slow and sentimental. Zander’s tempos could never be accused of ‘wallowing’, and, in fact, more could have been made of the moderato marking of the first movement. Simply allowing a little extra time for the phrases to end naturally would have alleviated rush; a slower tempo would also have allowed Gabriela Montero the opportunity to catch her breath and keep together with the orchestra.

Rachmaninov once chastised a conductor for taking the second movement too slowly: “Keep moving, the piece is far too sentimental already”. Zander’s view was ‘classical’, Mozartean, which seems just right. The quieter dynamics made for a more pleasurable listening experience; the Queen Elizabeth Hall is not a large hall and the Philharmonia at full volume was actually too loud – causing distortion when the sound reflecting from the rear of the hall met with that coming forward. The finale opened with clear precision from the violins and winds despite the slightly over-egged tempo. Again Zander appeared a driven man leaving a feeling that the soloist was always chasing the orchestra.

Gabriela Montero makes a habit of improvising. After the concerto she offered the audience what she called “dessert” and she asked the audience to pick a melody for her to improvise upon. Somebody sung a few bars from Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which was perhaps not the best choice considering Gershwin’s own improvisation upon that piece. Montero played upon that suggestion and was accomplished, stylish and ravishing – starting in a Bach idiom and moving on in a jazz-influenced twentieth-century manner.

To celebrate the hundredth birthday of Shostakovich, the day before the concert, Zander and the Philharmonia set about the Fifth Symphony – and had very little to say it, musically, unlike Zander who spoke at length as a prelude to the performance. Zander makes a great deal of following the composer’s metronome markings, which makes, at best, for an inelegant if accurate performance. Early Russian performances of the symphony, presumably with the composer was present during rehearsals, are often slow and introspective. Western conductors in the early days of the work set off down the wrong path because of an error in the printed score, which doubled the speed at the end of the last movement.

Zander made a point of stressing how he has restored this movement to its rightful tempo and thus has shown the composer’s true wishes; not so, as with many recordings being readily available most conductors accept the slower tempo is the correct one. In fact this error has been known for some years; Celibidache sent the composer a post-card asking confirmation for the marking of ‘quaver equals 188’ – the composer’s one word answer: “correct”. Zander, however, thinks that it ought to be ‘quaver equals 176’, and he may be right though the sum of this symphony is much more than metronome markings – and it was this ‘extra something’ that was missing from the performance.

Benjamin Zander has a huge following with fans that flock to his concerts as they might a rock star. He often takes a controversial path, but what he does is always researched, if, in performance, lucid and sometimes regimented; one doesn’t always agree with his viewpoint, but can applaud it.

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