Viktoria Mullova & Mikko Franck

Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64
Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.63

Viktoria Mullova (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Mikko Franck

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 13 May, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Three popular pieces, a great violinist, a great orchestra, and one of the most interesting of the younger conductors. Yet the hall was less than full. Life is indeed unfair. It seems you can do all the right things and yet success, at least when measured in box-office terms, is not guaranteed.

About Mikko Franck there may be divided opinions. About Viktoria Mullova there should be no doubt that she is one of the elite. The person who saddled her with the “Ice maiden” sobriquet should be taken out and shot. Never was a description more off-target. Mullova puts the music first, and she is the most constantly developing and questing of musicians. That she is technically superb is an added bonus. Instead of settling for iconic status, Mullova explores new projects outside of the ‘classical’ and has also taken an interest in baroque performing practice; notably non-egotistical, she also enjoys the interaction of making music as part of a group. All these qualities came together in Prokofiev’s Second Concerto, often treated as a display piece, but here seeming more of a latter-day homage to the concertos of the eighteenth century.

With total technical security, and a complete lack of fuss, the concerto’s opening, quite flowing, was particularly memorable and very different from the mawkish sentimentality sometimes paraded here; the neo-classical world of Stravinsky’s Concerto seemed very close. The slow movement soared ecstatically and the finale picked up a formidable momentum. The Philharmonia Orchestra under Franck was a model of unobtrusive but spot-on support and collaboration.

On his own terms, unobtrusive Mikko Franck certainly is not. His performance of Tchaikovsky 5 was a visceral antidote to Mullova’s self-effacement. Franck certainly has one great advantage as a conductor: he is impossible to ignore and, in fairness, he gets an orchestra to do exactly what he wants.

Yet, seldom can the body of the symphony’s first movement been taken at such an animated lick or the impact of its coda been so diminished by the questionably-fast speed; similarly, the more interventionist touches in the Waltz were fussed over and irritating. But there was no doubt that the performance packed a mighty punch. And therein lay the rub. Recalling my first Philharmonia Tchaikovsky 5, with Barbirolli at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall 40 years ago, one remembers deep velvet cushioning, finesse, and being aware of Tchaikovsky’s adoration of Mozart, whereas with Franck everything was made explicit and somehow coarsened. A metaphor for Life as we live it today? The massively distended pause before the finale’s peroration, theatrical to a point, seemed to sum up his interpretation’s most disagreeable aspects.

On the plus side there was a notably fine horn solo from Laurence Davies in the slow movement, which was matched by much sensitive playing from the woodwind soloists, and, throughout, the strings produced an impressive depth of sound, virtues mirrored in the equally forceful account of Romeo and Juliet with which the evening had opened.

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