Juraj Valčuha and the Philharmonia Bring Respighi’s Music Thrillingly to Life

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Falla and Respighi: Ingrid Fliter (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Juraj Valčuha (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 16.4.2015 (AS)

Respighi: Fontane di Roma
Falla: Noches en los jardines de España
Respighi: Feste romaneRespighi: Pini di Roma

The opportunity to hear Respighi’s Roman trilogy in one concert is rarely granted, but in last year’s Proms Charles Dutoit and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performed all three tone poems in one concert, as happened also on this occasion. In last year’s concert the three works were played as a triptych after the interval, which proved to be an effective listening experience. The late Lorin Maazel was to have conducted this Festival Hall programme, and possibly it was his decision to split Fontane di Roma from the other two works, and play them in the order listed above.

 To borrow the old football commentators’ cliché, this was a concert of two halves. In the first Juraj Valčuha conducted Fontane di Roma in a direct, clear-cut fashion, with every detail carefully observed: the work’s quiet ending was managed with particular sensitivity. But despite the Philharmonia Orchestra’s fine playing something was missing. The conducting was a bit too literal and there was a lack of potent atmosphere: the performance needed a substantial injection of Latin temperament to liven up proceedings.

We then moved in musical terms from the fountains of Rome to the Andalucia region in southern Spain, to hear Falla’s musical evocation of three of the area’s landscapes. The Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter has a fine, pearly technique and she played thoughtfully and in a highly committed fashion. But the expression generated in her playing was too generalised. This work needs a specifically Spanish kind of verve, with sharp, biting rhythms and idiomatically expressive use of rubato. Valčuha’s conducting had a certain obedient quality about it, in that he followed the soloist faithfully and accurately. All in all it was a low-temperature performance.

 It might have been expected that the performances after the interval would follow the nature of those already heard, but a remarkable change took place. The riotous beginning of Feste romane generates its own impetus, and suddenly this music seemed to take hold of Valčuha. From now on his beat became more flexible and his gestures increasingly generous and free, so that Respighi’s enormous vitality was released from its previous bonds and his wonderful orchestration glowed a great deal more. The orchestra also seemed much more inspired and its playing was not only flawless but showed extraordinary vitality. The audience, which had clapped the first half performances with no particular enthusiasm, erupted in delight at the end of Feste romane, where the successive climaxes that pile excitingly one on top another were brilliantly contrived by the conductor.

 After such a virtuoso display Pini di Roma might have been an anti-climax. Here, however, Valčuha not only achieved brilliance in the opening ‘Villa Borghese’ episode, but also found a rare degree of poetry in the two more reflective sections that follow. Here the woodwind solos were exceptionally expressive and full of beauty, with the recorded notes of a nightingale (as specified in the score) adding to the feeling of tranquility and repose. Then came the final tramp of soldiers down the Appian Way, heralded by very low pedal points on the organ and shivering strings. Valčuha had rather theatrically positioned two groups of offstage trumpets at either end of the choir seats, and two trombones on either side of the organ console, and the work ended in a terrific climax that generated even more decibels than had been experienced at the end of Feste romane.

 So in the end the concert turned into a triumph for the Philharmonia, for Valčuha, and above all for Respighi.

Alan Sanders                                                            

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