Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra in London

Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op.104
Little Suite
Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral)

Julian Lloyd Webber (cello)

Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra
Antoni Wit

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 4 March, 2008
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Antoni WitOne pleasure of concert-going is the opportunity to hear excellent orchestras that are less well-known than deserved. A generation ago these visits used to be an enriching feature of London concert life, the main venues regularly playing host to a wide range of overseas and UK-based orchestras. However, in our celebrity-driven age a sort of orchestral super-league has been established. This is an impoverishment. When did the Royal Festival Hall or Barbican Centre last host the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra or Oslo Philharmonic, say, let alone The Hallé, City of Birmingham Symphony or Royal Scottish National orchestras?

Cadogan Hall is therefore performing a particularly valuable service – akin to Carnegie Hall in New York – in enabling us to hear good orchestras that have been unfairly squeezed out.

An attractively mainstream programme and a popular soloist ensured a more-or-less full-house for the Warsaw Philharmonic, the bedrock of Polish musical life since its foundation in 1901. Rebuilt after the World War II by Witold Rowicki, a much under-rated conductor, the Warsaw Philharmonic is now under the stewardship of Antoni Wit (born 1944), an old-school Central-European maestro of real authority who has notched-up many recordings for Naxos (not least of Lutosławski’s music). The Orchestra boasts a particularly fine and cohesive string section and its winds are wonderfully characterful, rather in the manner of the old Czech Philharmonic. Throughout this particular evening it was notable that even in a smallish hall there was never an ugly sound.

Romeo and Juliet was cannily paced, not too slow in the opening section, the fight-music not so fast as to get in the way of clean articulation. Particularly welcome was the subtlety with which the music’s many joins were handled – this was not just a succession of highlights – and at the work’s string-dominated climax where others simply emote, Wit was careful to draw a clear but seldom-made distinction between the soaring theme’s first appearance, marked forte, and its recurrence (23 bars later) marked ff.

Julian Lloyd Webber Even finer was the accompaniment for Dvořák’s Cello Concerto – unfussy, flowing, with tangy-sounding woodwind, from the very first bars the orchestra and the conductor were wholly at-one with the work. Would that the same could have been said of the soloist. Leaving aside questions of interpretation, on a technical level this was one of the least competent accounts of the solo part it has been my misfortune to hear. One does at least have the right to hear the notes in tune and on time. Julian Lloyd Webber struggled to produce any weight of tone, dragging the tempo back at his initial entry and then meandering self-indulgently in the more introspective episodes. The cello’s climactic ascent with which the first movement culminates was barely there. By contrast, when Wit established a sensible tempo for the finale – just slow enough to allow for a real rhythmic kick – Lloyd Webber immediately pushed forward before then pulling the phrasing about quite mercilessly in the wonderful floating second subject. Yes, like Jacqueline du Pré you can get away with a degree of hin und her at this point, but it is necessary to produce a genuine legato. So erratic was Lloyd Webber’s contact with the orchestra one was frequently reminded of Thomas Beecham’s wicked injunction to an errant soloist: “Do stay in touch from time to time”. In the circumstances Wit deserved a medal.

Originally conceived for chamber orchestra, Lutosławski’s Little Suite dates from 1950 and could equally well have been entitled Dance Suite, its four brief movements including a dance led by the piccolo, a so-called ‘Hurra Polka’ and an extended finale entitled ‘Tanice’ (Dance). Wit conducted from memory and one had the sense that the orchestra could also have played the work without scores.

Wit’s conception of the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony was agreeably old-fashioned, but with the inclusion of the first-movement repeat. Otherwise this could have been a good pre-war performance, which despite the odd slip was wonderfully full-blooded and thoroughly musical, bucolic charm emerging in a way sometimes bypassed in more sophisticated performances – we were experiencing the sights and sounds of the country first-hand, not from behind the wheel of a 4 x 4. The first movement pressed ahead joyously, the Brook flowed in leisurely fashion – rarely have the nightingale, the quail and the cuckoo sounded more distinctively bird-like – and the Peasants made merry with lusty vigour. Perhaps the Storm could have been even more elemental but the Thanksgiving had just the right sense of spiritual uplift and, crucially in this movement, there was some notably fine horn-playing. The exuberant encore – unknown to this listener – appeared to be a Mazurka.

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