RPO/Slatkin On the Town

Concerto in E flat (Dumbarton Oaks)
Piano Concerto No.2 in F, Op.102
On the Town – Three Dance Episodes
Appalachian Spring [complete]

Finghin Collins (piano)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 27 April, 2006
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Whatever the reasons, Leonard Slatkin’s period with the BBC Symphony Orchestra proved something of a disappointment. His most unambiguous musical success was probably the Barbican revival, and associated Chandos recording, of Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa” so it’s no surprise that the conductor’s sympathies were again most fully engaged by the American items in this not unadventurous programme.

Slatkin recorded the Bernstein and Copland pieces during his glory days in St Louis and he still brings calm authority and full tone to music that responds surprisingly well to his relatively literal approach. Few conductors choose to perform Copland’s complete ballet score in its full orchestral garb – Slatkin was the first to record it commercially in the 1980s – and it was fascinating to hear the stretch of proto-Adams normally cut. Other, more modest restorations are of the gestural, vamp-until-ready variety, closely related – one assumes – to the original stage action. The imaginary ballet was easily the high point of the evening with committed, even gutsy playing, notwithstanding the odd fluff, and a suitably exquisite atmosphere at the close.

Hard though to resist the feeling that Copland’s diatonic Eden is yet more effective when preceded by something harder and nastier than “On The Town”. Slatkin, surely too stiff at first, gave individual soloists their head thereafter, although the third Episode again felt uncomfortable. Such music is simply too loud for this hall.

One wonders how many rehearsals the hard-stretched orchestra had enjoyed for this concert. Dumbarton Oaks was tidy, coolly lustrous in the middle but otherwise lacking dynamic range and variety.

The Shostakovich concerto is never easy to assess. Its soloist here, tall and dapper, performed with spruce efficiency, eschewing much in the way of rubato in the slow movement. Some will have welcomed this: it may after all be a mistake to indulge material which the composer himself came close to dismissing as entirely frivolous. The rather ‘dead’ string sound was probably a product of the acoustic. And at one point I had the distinct impression that the brass had been transported offstage.

A mixed bag then with Appalachian Spring a reminder of the world-class music-making of which this team is capable. Unfairly perhaps, and not for want of trying, the RPO lacks the sort of following that can routinely fill the Royal Albert Hall. Its attractively refurbished Chelsea home proves dodgy too, only in a different way. Even when three-quarters full, the sound has a sludgy ‘bottom’, coagulating into an undifferentiated roar at high decibels. In quieter passages it’s the air conditioning that intrudes.

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