Substitute Conductor Fails to Inspire London Philharmonic

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Ravel, Prokofiev, Stravinsky: Leila Josefowicz (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Mikhail Agrest (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 16.2.13 (GD) 

Ravel: Mother Goose – Ballet  (‘Ma mère l’oye’)
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major, Op.19
Stravinsky:  The Rite of Spring – ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’

This concert was to have been conducted by the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin, but due to illness he had to cancel. The young Russian conductor Mikhail Agrest agreed to take Nezet-Seguin’s place at very short notice.

There was a certain lack of line and episodic coherence in Agrest’s conducting of Ravel’s charming and elegant evocation of the fairy story of the Sleeping Beauty. The prelude and the ‘Danse du rouet et scène’ failed to register as a coherent and flowing sequence. There was a tendency here and throughout the ballet to drag, to slow down when everything in the score indicates a minimum of tempo manipulation and a sense of forward movement, while simultaneously accommodating the changes of mood in each of the ‘tableaux’. The ‘Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty’ (‘Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant’) despite some colouful and well tuned woodwind playing, sounded rather bland, failing to project the subtlety and finesse of a Monteux, or a Martinon where we hear a perfection of shaping,pacing and contouring of  the dance element. The ‘Conversations of Beauty and the Beast’ (‘Les Entretiens de la Belle et la Bête’),  made the  appropriate sounds, but here I had little sense of the subtle irony, humour of the tone of the grotesque with the enchanted, as an essential part of the ballet’s  musical, thematic narrative. ‘Tom Thumb’ (‘Petit Poucet’) failed to capture the appropriate tone of insouciance, shot though the semblance of a ‘valse triste’. This was largely to do with Agrest’s rather dull pacing here, which tended to drag. ‘Laideronette, Empress of the Pagodas’, (‘Laidronnette, Imperatrice des pagodes’) needed more lilt, more swagger. The woodwind section here played well, apart from a tendency to sound rather shrill and strident occasionally. Apothéose, ‘The fairy Garden’ (‘Le jardin féerique’) sounded rather loud and pompous, rather than resilient, buoyant and mercurial, as it should sound.

In the Prokofiev First Violin Concerto I thought the opening ‘Andantino’ rather static. In terms of actual tempo this was about right. But I didn’t have much of a sense of the movement implied in this tempo marking.  Miss Josefowicz managed her undulating tones quite well, and her brief chordal solo quasi cadenza, before the recaptitulation, had some of the necessary agility. Sometimes I had difficulty in hearing her figurations, especially when she was playing with the orchestra. But here some of the blame  must be attributed to the cavernous Festival Hall acoustic which is particularly unkind to the solo violin. The mercurial middle movment ‘Scherzo’ came off quite well with a good articulation of the tricky rhythmic constellations, especially from Miss Josefowicz. But I did miss the sense of irony here to be found in the old broadcast performance from Prague in 1948 with Oistrakh and Kubelik. But perhaps it is a tad unfair to make such a direct comparison with a classic recording? The orchestra played adequately although I would have welcomed more bite and rhythmic contrast, especially in the scherzo, from woodwind and brass.  The last movement, ending as it does with a marvellous, meditative recollection of the concerto’s opening theme was again adequate rather than exceptional in anyway. The refective finale itself sounding a little bland and prosaic.

The performance of Stravinsky’s ground breaking ballet was  a disappointment. The lack of care in terms of orchestral balance, rhythmic articulation and contrast, dynamic exactitude etc, make me wonder how well the conductor had studied Stravinsky’s fascinating  score, which is mostly meticulous in these matters. The problems started with the introduction. Agrest failed to register the two tempi in this movement; the ‘tempo primo and the ‘piu mosso’. Rather than moving on here Agrest made a broad ‘ritardando’. Also there were various problems of instrumental balance, such as an over-loud clarinet. In the ‘Augurs of Spring’ the basic thrusting rhythm initiated in the strings lacked the essential thrust indicated in the score. Also the continuity of pulsation was ignored, the basic rhythms tending to sag. The ‘Ritual Abduction’ marked ‘Presto’ was taken at a sluggish tempo, merely sounding dull. ‘Spring Rounds’ and ‘Ritual of the Rival Tribes’ were not just sluggish, but devoid of any sense of line. Also, at several points, the bass drum was too loud smothering important figurations in woodwind.  ‘The Procession of the Sage’ with its constellation of multple rhythmic/dynamic registers was really a mess. I could hear the tam tam, although the rhythm here was inconsistent. But the real problems occured when the ascending brass rhythms, punctuating every rhythmic secquence, were inaudible. There was plenty of noise here, but very little which corresponded to the composer’s score. The ‘Dance of the Earth’, which concludes Part 1, did not evolve as a ‘Prestissimo’ crescendo, it merely became louder lacking all sense of gradual intensity and expectation.

These problems continued throughout the performance. Part 2, beginning with the ‘Mystic circle of the young girls’, tended to drag, and the trumpet duo did not cohere, although well played. In the ‘Glorification of the Chosen One’ the ‘Molto Allargando’ was ignored, and again the bass drum was too loud, not playing ‘with’ the violas and basses, but obliterating their contribution. The timpani and bass drum crescendo rolls in the ‘Evocation of the Ancestors’ sounded smudged, lacking in urgent impact, and the ‘Ritual Action of the Ancestors’ was devoid of  rhythmic exactitude, with the carefully incorporated glissandi trills in the trumpets mostly obscured. In the final ‘Sacrificial Dance’ everything seemed to become increasingly loud with a crucial loss of detail resulting in much of the incredible energy and intensity of the music being lost. The incredible and shattering cross-rhythms in the basses, brass percussion went for virtually nothing. Here the rhythms sounded blunt, lacking the punctual impact the music demands. The sharp timpani thwacks and triplets sounding strangely tame. And  the ensemble problems, especially in brass and woodwind worsened. The final shattering chord failed to register, largely because Agrest did not really project the chaotic conflation of upbeat and downbeat, reducing  it more to a kind of loud thud.

I look forward to hearing Nezet-Seguin conduct the ‘Rite’ when he is in better health. I am sure he will produce a performance which more accurately corresponds to Stravinsky’s still amazing score.


Geoff Diggines