RFH Gala 50 Concert – 3rd May 2001

Fanfare [world premiere]
Overture – Leonora No.3
Piano Concerto in A minor
Verdi & Catalani
Overture – La forza del destino
Overture – I vespri Siciliani

Murray Perahia (piano)
Angela Gheorghiu (soprano)
Marcello Giordani (tenor)
Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone)

Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Pierre-Andre Valade and Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 3 May, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The Royal Festival Hall itself – opened 3 May 1951 – was the star of the show. Like most parties this celebratory concert was bright and noisy.

The Philharmonia Orchestra – not much older than the RFH – was in fine fettle, needing all its intrinsic sense of ensemble to ’read’ Gergiev’s directions. Anticipation of him conducting Birtwistle had a last-minute diversion; Valade has a fine reputation for more ’difficult’ things. Good there was something British – Birtwistle’s two-and-a-half minute Fanfare grew from a cymbal mist to a shattering, resonating gong stroke with characteristic brass energy and expression for a jubilant and proud opener, industrial percussion in attendance (and some Gawain clip-clops).

Bright I said. With extra lights turned to full between items –with half-a-dozen arias there are a lot of ’betweens’ – the spotlight on artists’ entrances and exits appeared superfluous; perhaps needed for the TV cameras? I also said noisy … well, Gergiev certainly whipped-up Verdi’s overtures. He has his reputation for conducting Russian opera, but elsewhere I find him wanting. It’s not a question of his being consistently raucous; it’s more to do with his ’obviousness’. There was plenty of quiet playing – especially in the Beethoven and Schumann – but also a lack of focus and a predictability of gesture. The Verdi overtures’ lyrical music was short-breathed and harried; the grandstand finishes blatant, the RFH a temporary bandstand. Gergiev’s penchant for noise, bustle and lurching accents leaves me wondering what the fuss is about. I recognise that his music-making pulsates with emotional communication, that the overall sound he produces has ardour; but to my ears it’s applied and lacks that all-important depth of response, a focus on the music’s core and building outwards from it.

The programme itself was an odd one. After the splendid Birtwistle, Force of Destiny would have been fine, then Schumann, the arias … to close, well, Britten’s Young Person’s Guide – something colourful, resourceful, triumphant, a showcase for the Orchestra, something nationalistic covering the centuries (i.e. back to Purcell) and, with its educational premise, a pointer to the next generation of RFH subscribers.

There was also the curiosity that the soloists seemed to have extra volume given them; their sound appeared to be positioned a little higher and closer than reality. Certainly Perahia (initially ill-at-ease, not really swinging and sparkling until the finale’s latter stages) was more aggressive than one might have imagined, and Giordani’s throwback tenor was emphasised – to someone like Mario del Monaco – a tad ’can belto’; Hvorostovsky’s noble excerpt from Don Carlos was the vocal highlight.

Yet I am assured by the RFH that no sound-boost was used; I am also informed that the piano is new and has been chosen for its big sound – well, this Yamaha is certainly present and vivid, but something mellower would have been more appropriate to both Schumann and Perahia.

The Philharmonia Orchestra was magnificent – a sensitive accompanist, its strings velvet and hushed, the ’full monty’ delivered in the overtures – poor old Verdi; he’s a far more subtle and sensitive composer, something Gergiev did appreciate in the arias themselves – for example, the commentaries of cor anglais and cello in Hvorostovsky’s choice from Rigoletto.

This though was the RFH’s evening – some unforgettable concerts and no doubt many more to come. It’s a welcoming, relaxed place. Its lucid, tonally faithful and dynamic acoustic has its detractors – but it’s an enhancement, something that hopefully will not be lost in the forthcoming refurbishment.

  • BBC Knowledge (Sky Digital channel 573) broadcasts this concert, Sunday 6 May, at 9.00p.m
  • Gergiev conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in the RFH this Thursday, 10 May, (Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Shostakovich) and Friday (Verdi Requiem)
  • Box Office: 020 7960 4201
  • Book Online: www.rfh.org.uk

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