The Rest is Noise – London Philharmonic/Mikhail Agrest – Mother Goose & The Rite of Spring – Leila Josefowicz plays Prokofiev

Ma mère l’oye
Violin Concerto No.1 in D, Op.19
The Rite of Spring

Leila Josefowicz (violin)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Mikhail Agrest

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 16 February, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Mikhail Agrest. Photograph: IntermusicaThis was the third concert in three days for the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the first in Madrid, and all with Mikhail Agrest replacing Yannick Nézet-Séguin. In a further instalment of The Rest is Noise series, there was nothing here to frighten the horses, a meaty programme that required active and concentrated listening – something conspired against by an over-heated RFH (once again), a barrage of unguarded coughing, and a distracting light-show (however surreptitious) from those who don’t want to realise that a request to switch phones off includes them.

Ravel’s Mother Goose (1911), whether complete or in Suite form, here the former, can be magically transporting. It wasn’t quite on this occasion. Part of the problem was that Agrest had the strings at full strength, and in tuttis the sound was heavy, even thick, and at odds with Ravel’s small ensemble of woodwinds and horns, and also with percussion that mostly colours. Despite some sensitive playing, especially in solos, there was a lack of translucence and delicacy. Tempos were generally well-judged, save for a pedestrian ‘Laideronnette, Impératrice des Pagodes’ and a rather too flowing and smooth ‘Le jardin féerique’, which also lacked tenderness and failed to break the heart.

Leila Josefowicz. Photograph: Henry FairProkofiev’s Violin Concerto No.1 (1917) also has its fantasy quotient, an ability to suggest and paint pictures, but was less graphic here. Leila Josefowicz was in fine form if a little detached at times, generously lyrical and buzzing and swooping in the centrally-placed scherzo. However, although the LPO and Agrest offered a professional accompaniment it was rarely an interactive collaboration and could be too deferential to the soloist; in this concerto the orchestra is just as important. The outer movements lacked for connective tissue for what can seem episodic constructions, and Josefowicz indulged the passage leading up to the final climax; any atmosphere generated thereafter was clapped into too early while the musicians were still creating silence. Josefowicz didn’t offer an encore and none was needed.

However riot-inducing the first-night in Paris on 29 May 1913 was, The Rite of Spring has long been popular, and this centenary year will no doubt notch up many presentations of it. This performance fell too easily into many a modern conductor’s view of the work – fast, loud and crude; too much a showpiece. There’s more to this great and seminal creation than that, not least a sense of ritual. Allowing that Agrest was probably thrown into these concerts (and good on him for doing so) with little time to prepare and might have missed some rehearsal time, what we had was given slightly on a ‘wing and a prayer’. Opening with an expressive bassoon solo from Daniel Jemison, what followed was rather precipitate, and although some of ‘part one’ contained a suggestion that this piece was conceived for choreography, there was little that was particularly distinctive. Yet, ‘Dance of the Earth’ was absolutely terrific, tumultuous, the LPO fantastically flamboyant, but it trumped the ‘Sacrificial Dance’ that closes things, hardly a girl manically dancing herself to death, the music-making just a little cautious and imbalanced. The opening of ‘part two’ had lacked for the very quietest dynamics and therefore mystery. Nevertheless, this would have been an excellent initiation to anyone buying into The Rite for the first time.

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