Haydn and Strauss under Nezzet-Seguin - LPO

LPO play Haydn and Strauss

I was looking forward to this programme offered on a Wednesday night at the Royal Festival Hall.  Haydn is under played in London, Mørke is a renounced cellist and Yannick Nézzet-Seguin a rising international star.  Most of all for me it was a chance to hear Strauss’ Don Quixote live for the first time.  

I should say that in recent encounters with London Philharmonic Orchestra I have not been impressed.  Something is amiss.  Sad to say it was amiss in this concert too, but other problems reared their heads too.  Overall it wasn’t the pleasure I’d hoped.

Haydn’s Symphony No 44 - nicknamed ‘Trauer’ is not Eroica and shouldn’t, I’d say, be conducted as if it were Beethoven at his most feverish.  The extremes of transitions, unsmiling melodies, and brusque tempi combined to knock the geniality out of  the work and  despite some delicate tracery in the slow movement and bounce in the Minuet - the overall effect was more serious than I like my Haydn (even when its music he would have liked to be played at his burial) and in the outer movements grandiloquence was a warning of things to come.

The D major Cello Concerto which followed was much more palatable but I had a feeling - with his repeated glances to the leader that Mørke wasn’t get as much from his conductor as he needed.  There was a certain competitive edge to the accompaniment as if someone was unwilling to let go of being the centre of attention.  It looked and sounded somewhat disconnected.  When they came together in the second half of the slow movement it was wonderful, but that didn’t last long.

Don Quixote is one of my favourite Strauss tone poems and it reveals a good deal I think of Strauss’ view of himself.  It is a companion piece to Ein Heldenleben was also subject to  the Nézzet-Seguin treatment a few days later.  I’m not entirely sure why these works were coupled with Haydn.

The London Philharmonic are capable of great things, especially when the pressure is on - but it seems to me that they can rest on their laurels.  I reported recently on the BBC Philharmonic’s concert where an imperfect Bruckner 9 had the potential for great things from a band trying very hard.  The LPO I have no  doubt is full of dedicated musicians who can under the right conductor make a fine sound and wonderful music.  But it didn’t seem to be obvious at this concert.

The litany of musical faults can be equally divided between orchestra and conductor:-

- The interpretation was too much about what the conductor could make the orchestra do - which may have thrilled many - but won’t get him into teh Pantheon of great Strauss conductors.  Too often I thought the conductor was thinking big when Strauss was being really personal and intimate.  The motorway pace he took through some of Strauss’ most beautiful music was disturbing.  And his bold sweeping gestures were almost balletic, but they filled the stage.  Strauss used to conduct his music with barely a raised eyebrow: YNS puts everything into it. Most of all we didn't really reach into the central theme of Cervantes or for that matter Strauss’ take on that. Delusion became pantomime - we were firmly in a fairytale world - not teetering on the edge of sanity.

- The orchestra tone was, at most tutti, far too big so Mørke’s relatively small voice was masked far too often. The violins - especially the firsts - were no match for the rest of the strings, there were some lovely noises coming from the right hand side of the stage but the left couldn’t compete. The strings sound, and the attention of the conductor, were weighted towards the bass end - the plus side was that the viola parts were more prominent, the downside was the 18 strong first violins sounded weak.  Even when Mørke was playing only with the divided celli, he was swamped - and that from the other side of the podium.  Meanwhile Power sat further back, in the front desk of the violas, and was a strong and vibrant presence.

- Mørke, when audible, played beautifully but he wasn't an especially characterful - his Don never seemed to be out of his mind: tilting at dragons he knew were windmills. Laurence Power was brilliant adding even more to Sancho Panza’s character than I had heard before and his sound is strong and towering.

- There was too much untidiness - dislocated entries, lapses of tone and unhappinesses of ensemble - this didn’t sound like London’s best orchestra.  They couldn't come in together - YSN’s signal seemed clear enough from where I was sitting - it marred the closing bars of Don Quixote.  They look like they think they play well or worse, they think they DO play well if they look like they think they are playing well (like English international football teams).  I've heard many orchestras with far fewer resources than LPO play better. The recent Schönberg 5 Pieces/Mahler 7 from City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was in a far better place - under a guest conductor too. To be fair the LPO do play better under Jurowski - one wonders why?  More rehearsal, their understanding of his style is perhaps more acute now or maybe its just that he’s the boss and flub for him and you might be on your way.  I've written about their concerts with Vänskä in the past - very patchy experiences so this effect is not new to me.

- There's something about YSN's phrasing which was uneven - rushing the first half of a phrase to emphasis the lingering end was annoying. Clipping and accelerating also comes up for no good reason - perhaps he thinks it delivers a sense of pace but it also starts to bore after a while.

A pretty but empty collection of musical excitements, with real problems of balance, pacing and overall effect. The RFH crowd loved it - it was cheered to the rafters for a couple of curtain calls.


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