London can take pride in its two main orchestras. The LSO and the Philharmonia have been in vintage form, with Riccardo Muti and Bernard Haitinkby Stephen Everson / March 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
Riccardo Muti’s godfatherly charms
Musically, these are good times for what are currently the capital’s two main orchestras—the Philharmonia and the LSO—and it is suitable that each should be in celebratory mood. The LSO is in the middle of its 18-month long centenary celebrations, and now the Philharmonia has started the festivities for its own 60th anniversary—which falls in October—with a gala concert at the Royal Festival Hall at the end of January. Where the LSO made its first gala a diverse affair, bringing in a squad of its associates from Rostropovich and Brendel right down to Michael Tilson Thomas and Dave Brubeck, the Philharmonia chose to provide more substantial musical fare. Entrusting the concert to just one conductor—Riccardo Muti, who was its musical director for a decade from 1972—and eschewing such things as the main theme from Star Wars, it put Beethoven’s violin concerto in the first half, with Vadim Repin as soloist, and Schubert’s “Great” symphony in the second. Muti is now a rare visitor to Britain—certainly rarer than Covent Garden had hoped, given his sudden decision to pull out of conducting Verdi’s La Forza del Destino there last October—and it was something of a coup for the Philharmonia to have brought him back to the London stage.
Speaking at the reception after the concert, Muti, who is now in his sixties, manifested a physical glamour and ironic charm that would have made him a natural for a leading role in one of The Godfather films—something that has no doubt assisted him during his tenure at La Scala. On the platform, he seemed not to have aged since his days as music director. Still with the same surprising mane of fleckless black hair, he was so balletic as he communicated his directions to the various sections of the orchestra that it came as a shock when he turned at the end to reveal a man long past his youth. The concert itself was a mixed affair. Repin is as fine a violinist as any of his Russian contemporaries, and one would have expected him to be an ideal soloist for the Beethoven. Technically, indeed, he was impeccable, but to my ear it was as if the concerto itself had yet to convince him of its merits. Most problematic was the first movement, which he and Muti took so slowly that it seemed to go on forever, and so episodically that they were able to generate no real sense of tension or musical argument. The Schubert, in contrast, was quite wonderful, and suddenly one could see why Muti has such a high reputation as an orchestral as well as an operatic conductor. It is not an easy work to bring off: Schumann may have thought its lengths heavenly, but it takes a conductor of both discipline and imagination if it is not to sound meandering. Muti showed himself to have both—as indeed did the orchestra. In the strings particularly, phrase after phrase was breathtaking in its precision of ensemble and freedom of inflection and this allowed Muti to shape a performance of real structural tension and excitement, where every note made sense.
Bernard Haitink’s Barbican best
Across the river at the Barbican, the LSO too is having a fine season. The standard way of contrasting the two orchestras is to think of the Philharmonia as the more European in its concentration and refinement, and the LSO as having the flair and brashness of an American orchestra. Such a judgement, however, would certainly not have survived attendance at the LSO’s recent concerts, which showed how refined they can be under the right conductor. Fortunately, we have been able to hear them with two such conductors this season. In October, Pierre Boulez came to conduct a series of concerts which included two performances of the Rite of Spring, Mahler’s 7th symphony, and the orchestral versions of some of his own Notations. All the performances manifested Boulez’s well-known precision, but they also demonstrated his less appreciated virtues of sensuality of line and the ability to generate astonishing intensity.
In December, Bernard Haitink returned to conduct three concerts over a week. I complained last summer that the LSO’s performance of Mahler’s 6th as part of the Barbican’s series for Haitink’s 75th birthday seemed under-rehearsed, but there were no such worries this time. The orchestra were completely responsive to Haitink’s demands and produced as stylish and witty a reading of a Haydn symphony as I have heard from a full orchestra, and a performance of Bruckner’s 7th that was finer even than Haitink achieved with the Dresden Staatskapelle at the Proms. The last year has not been the easiest administratively for the LSO. In July, Clive Gillinson is due to leave his post as managing director after 21 years to take on the direction of Carnegie Hall, and the orchestra has yet to find a successor. Last November, Patrick Harrild stood down as chairman after only 18 months in the post, to be replaced by Lennox Mackenzie. The LSO’s grand project of converting St Luke’s Church on Old Street into an educational centre and performance space, which opened in March 2003, cost several million more than had been planned, and sent the orchestra into deficit. That has now, according to Gillinson, been “virtually cleared” and will, he expects, be fully so by the time he leaves for New York. It will be good when the question of his successor is finally resolved—for if the LSO can play as it has recently in times of some uncertainty, it will be exciting to find out how it can play when things settle down.