London Philharmonic Orchestra
Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
February 18 2023
Review: William Ruff
A stimulating programme played with charisma and insight
This London Philharmonic concert was built on two of the sturdiest pillars of the entire classical music repertoire: Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Brahms’ Violin Concerto. However, before the audience was allowed to settle into the comfort zone they were invite on a journey whose scenery was very different indeed and for ten minutes entered the extra-terrestrial world of Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (For Orbiting Spheres).
Missy Mazzoli has been hailed as ‘Brooklyn’s post-millennial Mozart’ and seems to be able to turn her musical hand to anything, working in classical forms and for conventional forces whilst also exploiting whatever technology is to hand and producing much music for film and television. Her range of styles is vast and perhaps the only common factor is her love of exploring new sound worlds. Her Sinfonia is a sort of sound sculpture in the shape of the solar system: ‘a collection of rococo loops that twist around each other within a larger orbit…It’s a piece that churns and roils, that inches close to the listener only to leap away at breakneck speed.’
It’s certainly exciting to listen to, especially as the ear has to process so many unexpected sounds so quickly as, for instance, serene strings at the top of their register are offset by some astonishing growling which must have set many a ribcage vibrating. Take a normal orchestra, add in synthesiser, computer-assisted boombox and various wind players blowing into harmonicas and truly strange sounds are created. At first I thought it a pity that the Royal Concert Hall couldn’t be changed into a Planetarium for the occasion, but who needs visuals when Missy Mazzoli’s sound imagery is so vivid?
Brahms’ Violin Concerto must have had some exotic bedfellows in its time but I wonder whether it has ever emerged from the furthest reaches of the solar system before. The soloist was James Ehnes, one of the world’s top violinists and no stranger to Nottingham. For many listening on Saturday he would have been the ideal interpreter of this favourite concerto. He is always the servant of the music: calm in temperament and with the technique to command every mood: expansiveness, nobility and intense lyricism in the first two movements – followed by plenty of pyrotechnics in the finale. Brahms wrote his concerto in collaboration with the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim – who expressed fears that the finale would be impossible to play unless the speed was toned down. James Ehnes had no such fear and the result was exhilarating. The slow movement oboe solo was played beautifully by Rainer Gibbons.
The LPO was directed by the German conductor Kevin John Edusei who brought a sharply probing mind to all the works on the programme, not least Beethoven’s 6th (Pastoral) Symphony, a work that can’t afford to drift along on auto-pilot. One of the first and most important decisions that any conductor has to make is: how fast should the opening movement be? Beethoven talks about ‘happy feelings’ but also says that the speed should be ‘not too fast’. Just a few minutes spent on Spotify will tell you that conductors adopt widely different interpretations of what that ‘not too fast’ means. Edusei’s tempo was really quite brisk, as if the visitor to the countryside was bursting with joy at being liberated from the city and able to commune with nature.
The LPO responded with relish and in detail with all sections of the orchestra seemingly bathed in rural sunshine, none more so that the woodwind who performed their solo birdsongs delightfully. Each of the symphony’s five movements was vividly characterised, with careful attention to dynamics creating subtly shaded contrasts of light and shade. The storm had real, violent bite and the concluding Shepherds’ Song was made to embody the sense of deeply felt and spontaneous gratitude which impelled the whole performance. The audience loved it.
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Kevin John Edusei, conductor
James Ehnes, violin