The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra is badly cast with Renée Fleming. Plus, a young conductor shows how Brahms's 1st should be doneby Stephen Everson / January 14, 2007 / Leave a comment
The wrong orchestra
While it is all but unknown in lieder recitals for the singer to go off stage and allow the pianist to perform solo, when singers give recitals accompanied by an orchestra, it is standard practice for the orchestra to play works alone. So for Magdalena Kozená’s recital with Il Giardino Armonico at the Barbican in late October, in between the Mozart arias we were treated to alert and characterful performances of symphonies by Boccherini and CPE Bach. And when Andreas Scholl came to the Barbican to perform a couple of Bach cantatas for solo alto at the end of November, Accademia Bizantina also gave Handel’s organ concerto Op 4, No 4 and Bach’s concerto for two violins. Such programmes make good sense—a singer’s voice is obviously put under greater strain in a big hall against an orchestra than it is when singing with a piano in the Wigmore—but they do not always bring out the best in the audiences. Singers such as Kozená and Scholl have large and enthusiastic followings whose enthusiasm does not always extend to significant stretches of instrumental music, however interesting and well played.
Such mixed programmes also carry other dangers, as was all too clearly demonstrated in Renée Fleming’s recital at the beginning of December at the Barbican. Whereas Kozená and Scholl both chose to work with top-flight baroque ensembles, Fleming somehow ended up with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, which is apparently “in constant demand for performances and recordings of classical, light classical and popular music.” Whoever thought that an orchestra that specialises in accompanying the likes of Randy Newman and Hayley Westenra would be up to the demands of Puccini, Korngold and Richard Strauss is in the wrong business. Fleming herself was at least able to retire backstage for the instrumental pieces; the audience had to stay put and suffer. Never can one of Dvorák’s Slavonic Dances have sounded more charmless, or the “Nocturne” from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream less magical. If the playing was more confident for La Calinda from Delius’s opera Koanga, this was only because, under Andreas Delfs’s florid direction, the musicians managed to make it sound like the music from Star Wars. Even had these pieces been competently performed and sensitively interpreted, their inclusion would have been pointless—a moronic injection of an orchestral pop concert into what should have been an operatic recital of the first…