A Lacklustre Philharmonia Concert Despite Rafael Payare’s Best Efforts

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prokofiev and Rachmaninov: Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra / Rafael Payare (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 9.3.2017. (AS)

Prokofiev – Symphony No.1 in D, ‘Classical’; Violin Concerto No.1 in D, Op.19
RachmaninovSymphonic Dances, Op.45

No established symphony orchestra In London or elsewhere contains, or indeed could possibly contain, the same personnel at each concert: prominent players are allowed to accept occasional outside engagements, and inevitably there are periods of ill-health and time for holidays. And it is common for an orchestral section to have more than one regular principal. Yet on this occasion there seemed to be more unfamiliar faces than usual in the Philharmonia, and sure enough, the special printed list of personnel for this concert revealed there to be five guest principals and a number of other musicians named who were not regular members of the orchestra as specified in the concert programme. (This programme was first issued at the beginning of the year to cover the first nine concerts of 2017.)

London’s best freelance players are known for their exceptional adaptability and ability to absorb unfamiliar music and circumstances extraordinarily quickly. However, although on this occasion the quality of playing was in general of a decent standard, throughout the evening there was a certain lack of personality, a kind of facelessness in the response of the orchestra that betrayed a lack of what might be called corporate togetherness.

The young Venezuelan conductor, Rafael Payare, currently Chief Conductor of the Ulster Orchestra, has an energetic, efficient technique and a clear beat, but he had to work hard to try and achieve nuances of interpretation that didn’t always quite materialise as he apparently intended.

Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony seems, unlike some works, to be susceptible to different ranges of basic tempo in all four movements while still retaining its unique, genial personality. On this occasion the opening Allegro sounded slightly wooden at a slowish basic pulse, but there was plenty of charm in the inner movements and a pleasant quicksilver delivery of the finale.

At the outset of the Violin Concerto Frank Peter Zimmermann’s attractive tone quality and lyrical style promised good things, but as the movement developed his playing became rather effortful. His quality of tone deteriorated and intonation was not entirely secure: Prokofiev’s sense of fantasy and magical discovery were missing. The middle Scherzo movement sounded merely busy and was rather scratchily played, with more technical lapses, and though the performance recovered to an extent in the finale, there remained a somewhat dry, lacklustre quality in the solo playing.

Having done all that was possible in the concerto, the orchestra turned to Rachmaninov’s magnificent final work. Here again Payare was clearly trying very hard: his was an ardent, imaginative approach to the variations of mood contained in the opening movement. But the necessary qualities of sheer energy, tension and that special sense of pungent yearning in Rachmaninov’s orchestral writing were not forthcoming in the response of the orchestra. In the middle movement the composer gives woodwind soloists particular opportunities to flourish. Here only the cor anglais playing of the superb Jill Crowther rose to the occasion. Elsewhere in this movement’s Tempo di valse there was a lack of tonal depth and rhythmic strength. Similar deficiencies inhabited the finale, despite Payare’s attempts to generate passion and atmosphere.

It would be good to hear how this conductor might fare in more propitious circumstances, since he is clearly a musician of sensitivity and sensibility.

Alan Sanders

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