Philharmonia Pictures

Festival Coronation March
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Mussorgsky orch. Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition

Sergey Khachatryan (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Alexander Lazarev

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 28 November, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

This was the day that finally proved just how inadequate and sadistic is the arrangement of the capital’s transport. With no trains on my particular line (for planned engineering works) I took to the car. So did everybody else! Close on three hours for a 15-mile journey may seem absurd – but true. Whichever route one took, it was gridlock. Why is it that just about every set of traffic lights has five seconds of green and two minutes of red? Are the planners (I guess I mean Transport for London) totally hapless or totally perverse? London to host the Olympics in 2012? Forget it!

Thus, having set off in more than good time, I missed the first half of this (afternoon) concert. A shame, for it’s not everyday that Tchaikovsky’s Festival Coronation March (billed here without the ‘Festival’ bit) gets an airing (although the LSO and Michael Tilson Thomas played it just a week before, and also Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, with Joshua Bell) and, following a couple of impressive CDs, it would have been interesting to hear Sergey Khachatryan live.

So, this was a one-work concert. And what a performance! Pictures is one of those works that turns up a bit too often, but when it’s as fresh and dramatic as here, who’s complaining? Alexander Lazarev, maybe the ultimate conductor-enthusiast, made his trademark run onto the podium … and we were off. The opening trumpet solo can be more contemplative, but Lazarev clearly wanted a whole view of the gallery in just a few bars, and Mark David gave us a confident blast, just as he did in the demanding ‘shivering’ solo in “Goldenburg and Schmuyle” to depict the latter’s misfortune in contrast to the rich Goldenburg, here depicted with a glorious depth of string sound.

Lazarev is a conductor whose gestures are sometimes more graphic than the music itself. And while there were moments that seemed swept along in indecent haste (“The Gnome” was more threatening than gawky, and the squabbling factions in the “Tuileries” found the normally unflappable Philharmonia woodwinds not quite in tandem with Lazarev’s fleetness), he did pull off two coups. One was the flowing tempo for “The Old Castle” which allowed no longeur but didn’t compromise atmosphere – enhanced by Bradley Grant’s plaintive saxophone solo – and there was an outstanding realisation of “Bydlo”, which had a properly lugubrious tread, the folksong heavy of heart, and in which Andrew Fawbert’s euphonium solo was a model of poise and controlled dynamics.

For all Lazarev’s demonstration, there was no lack of subtlety or mysterious quietude when required, such as “Catacombs” and “Cum mortuis in lingua mortua”, and the closing “Great Gate of Kiev”, spaciously conceived, was built to a convincingly brazen climax. Lazarev immediately asked Messrs Fawbert and David to stand, and it’s not many conductors that take the trouble to seek out the principal double bassist for a handshake.

Presumably, there had been an ‘incident’ in the first half involving an obnoxious noise-making implement or person. Before part two, the RFH’s standard announcement regarding mobile phones, etc, was played again (to the approval of the Philharmonia); could that ‘warning’ be updated to also include banishing the opening of sweets, the irritating watch-bleep that announces each hour, and the bringing-in of comestibles? Last week, at the first of Kurt Masur’s LPO Beethoven concerts, someone in the first row of the front stalls had a can of drink and a plate of sandwiches to keep him company. I kid you not! Maybe the RFH stewards needs to be more aware when enforcing the house rules?

Alexander Lazarev returns to the RFH on Tuesday the 30th. He doesn’t do dull!

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