Friday, December 31, 2010


A Hero’s Baton

The programme of the Philharmonia’s concert in the Festival Hall, December 9, looked as if it was put together by a committee. One member wanted Strauss’ ego-trip, Ein Heldenleben, another insisted on the Leonora 3 overture whilst a third pointed out that the great trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger was available, why not get him to play the Haydn Concerto? So .... at the end of the concert were there any complaints?

No, siree, because on the podium was Andris Nelsons, the brilliant young Latvian who is being such a success with the Birmingham Orchestra. His Heldenleban did not eclipse memories of Mengelberg’s superb 1930 recording or Beecham’s performances in London but it was nevertheless a very fine one, full-blooded, thrilling. Critics in the past have been rather snooty about the tone-poem “I say, the fellow is wallowing in self-indulgences”. Well who cares? It has a convincing shape, wonderful tunes, a marvellous musical solo violin portrait of Pauline, Mrs. Strauss as skittish, amorous, a bit perverse, the echt ewige weibliche: it has that rousing battle, followed by that gorgeous urging, surging tune, not to mention a cohort of eight horns (nine with the bumper-up) going ever upward, and then there is that heartfelt code (with a nod towards the Bruch Fiddle concerto) – yes, self-indulgent, but a feast for the ear. Nelsons had a ball, enjoying every moment, crouching, beckoning, jumping, even standing back for a moment as the strings swooped towards heaven or sank down on their G Saiten (G strings). Some think that a conductor should not be seen to emote but who in the audience wants to see the chap on the podium standing stock still while a hundred players in front of him are bowing, blowing and bashing their hearts out?

Hardenberger proved his greatness in the Haydn: liquid tone (something between George Eskale’s cornet sound and Ernest Hall or his pupil. Malcolm Arnold’s true trumpet timbre) and the utmost virtuosity. He threw in an encore: H.K. Gruber’s little concertino, a piece where the beat is continually displaced by syncopation. The composer was there to hear his piece which sounded to me like a corny Thirties Berlin jazz band.

Leonora was beautifully played, dramatic and colourful but also clear in form and exciting. If the committee can produce another programme like this with the Philharmonia on top form with a conductor to match, I’ll be there!

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