United Kingdom Debussy, Lalo, Brahms: Augustin Hadelich (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Omer Meir Wellber (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 17.4.2015 (CS)
Debussy: Prélude à L’après midi d’un faune
Lalo: Symphonie espagnole Op.21
Brahms: Symphony No.1 in C Minor Op.68
Israeli conductor Omer Meir Wellber has a busy career in Europe. His big breakthrough came in 2008 when he stepped in at short notice to conduct Aida at Padua’s Teatro Verdi and attracted the attention of the Italian media. An opportunity to assist Daniel Barenboim at La Scala and the Berlin Staatsoper followed, and since then Wellber hasn’t looked back. But in the UK we had to wait until May last year to hear Wellber, whose performances of Eugene Onegin at the Glyndebourne Festival with the London Philharmonic Orchestra were highly acclaimed. The LPO must have enjoyed that experience for they took the opportunity to invite him back to make his official ‘concert platform’ debut at the Royal Festival Hall. The evening’s performance revealed Wellber to be a conductor whose combination of energy and clarity, passion and intellect, engenders exciting, enthralling music-making.
In Debussy’s Prélude à L’après midi d’un faune Wellber was true to the gentle suggestiveness of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem upon which the work is based. He fleetingly evoked specific emotions which then faded back into mystery, just as the faun – half man, half goat – drifts between dream and reality as he spends a languorous afternoon reflecting on the erotic allure of some nymphs. Wellber’s sculpting of the orchestra’s swelling phrases was as impressive as his attention to textural detail. There were strong waves of sound which shimmered and pulsed like the heat on a sultry summer’s day, but the full orchestral tone was never overly rich and always tempered by a classical restraint. Instrumental solos were beautifully played. The harps’ cascades and flourishes had the grace of dancers’ arabesques and contrasted with the winnowing chromaticism of the woodwind and horn gestures. The lovely slipperiness of the clarinet and horn was juxtaposed with the more pointed poignancy of the oboe and cor anglais. Sue Thomas’s opening flute solo was delicate and mysterious, emerging softly from the silence, gradually warming and then briefly blossoming before being quelled by the exclamation from oboes, clarinets, horn and harp. It would have been even more affecting had it not been ambushed by at least four audience members who could not restrain their coughing for even a few seconds during the very first bars of the performance (and whose noisy interjections continued throughout the evening).
The thumping fifths which open Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole came as quite a shock after the elusiveness of Debussy’s elliptical score, but there was an immediate retreat for the entry of the soloist, Augustin Hadelich. Hadelich was born in Italy, to German parents and is now an American citizen, but he proved himself perfectly attuned to the spirit of the French composer’s foray into the Spanish lands of his ancestors. He has a prodigious technique and a gorgeous tone and both were put to dazzling effect here.
In the Allegro non troppo the Iberian-tinted melodies possessed a delightful puckishness combined with bright-toned elegance. As Hadelich soared on the G-string the sound remained clear, communicating warmth and feeling. The violinist seems to move the fingers of his left hand in quite a ‘deliberate’ way – lifting them quite high off the string – yet he raced through the passagework with lightning velocity and clean-cut brilliance. Wellber was a supportive partner – the five movements do not really form a ‘concerto’, more a symphonic suite for orchestra with solo violin – knowing when hold things in check and when to unleash the full theatricality of the score. Again, there was attention to detail and colour: dolce violins, dancing pizzicato, well-blended ensemble work from trombones and trumpet. After the extravagant blows of the opening, in the concluding section of the movement timpanist Tony Bedewi showed that he can tiptoe lightly too.
The Scherzando: Allegro molto was a jubilant festive dance, which had Wellber sashaying and wiggling on the podium. The string pizzicatos and sudden loud chordal interjections were clipped and dry, showcasing Hadelich’s lyrical expressiveness. At all times there was a sense of dialogue between orchestra and soloist, as in the bassoon’s well-played, full-toned staccato accompaniment to the violinist’s dashing triplets. Similarly, in the Intermezzo the basses were sensitive to the soloist’s lilt in the habañera and the plucked strings conjured the bright ring of a Spanish guitar. The accuracy and ease with which Hadelich flew through the bravura fireworks demonstrated an astonishing facility and muscle memory. Low strings, woodwind and brass cast darker shadows at the opening of the Andante. Hadelich’s solo song was firm of tone and well-projected, and the movement was satisfyingly crafted by Wellber who pushed flowingly into the major-key episode and placed the cellos’ quiet, incisive rhythmic motif with precision and care in the final bars.
There was much drama at the start of the Rondo, pianissimo string pizzicatos gradually supplementing the tentative gestures of woodwind and harp, and the orchestral dimensions expanding organically, culminating in an explosion of vitality with the entry of the solo violin. Wellber whipped through the accelerandi but never let things run away, judiciously applying the brakes and the volume control. Again, Hadelich showed off his formidable technique: four-string chords slipped neatly into running triplet quaver passages, rapid pizzicato interruptions were seamless and, in the final virtuosic outburst, beneath a sustained high trill the left-hand pizzicatos were perfectly placed.
Lalo is one of those composers who are known chiefly for a single work. It’s rather odd, then, that the Symphonie espagnole is no longer the concert staple that it once was. If Hadelich acts as a champion for the work, which in his hands was colourful, witty and spectacular, its popularity would surely rise once more. Pablo Sarasate, for whom Lalo composed the Symphonie espagnole, was a brilliant technician. If we were amazed and delighted by the virtuosity that we had heard, Hadelich showed us what he could really do in a stunning encore of Paganini’s fifth Caprice which was as musically expressive as it was technically flawless.
In Brahms’ Symphony No.1, Wellber showed that his is a conductor who has strong, independent ideas and who is prepared to take risks to ensure they are articulated – and, one should add, who can communicate his wishes to his players with persuasive dexterity, inspiring them to playing of considerable commitment and eloquence.
In the Sostenuto introduction to the first movement, after a dramatic opening gesture Wellber was prepared to leave the beating of time to the heavy triplets intoned by the timpani and double basses, using his arms to ‘pull’ the various voices like threads through the complex syncopated contortions. This emphasised the huge scale of the movement, and imbued the arrival of the Allegro with a sense of both release and urgency. Here, there was ferocity and fury, but also respite and calm.
After these toils and triumphs, the Andante sostenuto was intimate, and Wellber drew forth lovely solo playing from his woodwind principals and, at the close, from leader Pieter Schoeman and first horn John Ryan. There was more fine horn playing at the start of the third movement, and this created a sense of gradual brightening and the casting away of the troubles of the opening as we progressed through the movements. So, the finale followed almost without a pause, only to take us aback with the return of the Allegro’s portentous unrest. But the darkness was swept aside by Brahms’ great major-key theme which rang out with tremendous lyricism and joy. The string tone was fantastically full and, after the veiled delicacy of the Debussy earlier in the evening, this confirmed the considerable versatility of the players who were responsive to every direction. In the final bars, Wellber was at his most daring, racing the orchestra through the concluding Più Allegro before a seemingly spontaneous, perfectly controlled ‘breath’ prefaced the mighty pronouncement of the brass’s chorale.
This was a tremendously exciting performance, one which revealed the intellect guiding Brahms’ musical thoughts. Everything was fresh but never disconcertingly surprising. At times Wellber seemed almost hyper-manic, by turns energetically coaxing his players, section by section, then still, barely twitching his baton. As he crouched, arched, swayed and gesticulated, I was reminded of Otto Böhler’s silhouettes of Mahler. But, this is no mere showmanship; Wellber’s conducting is as cerebral as it is physical, and the results on this occasion were deeply satisfying.