The London Philharmonic on short Swiss tour – with the Pekinel Sisters

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Ravel, Poulenc, Dvorak: London Philharmonic Orchestra / Howard Griffiths (conductor), Güher and Süher Pekinel (piano) Tonhalle, Zurich, 28.3.2017. (JR)

Ravel Pavane pour une infante défunte
Poulenc – Concerto for two pianos
Dvořák – Symphony No.8 ‘The English’ Op.88

It was very good to see and hear the London Philharmonic (LPO) in Zurich; the British ex-pats were out in force, a local group of cardiologists and a chocolate manufacturer had co-sponsored the event and the hall was full to the rafters. They even had to open the doors at the back to allow additional rows of restricted view and restricted sound seats.

Howard Griffiths is perhaps not a conductor much known outside Switzerland and Germany. He is, as you might guess from his name, British but he has made his home in Switzerland now for the last 35 years. He is Music Director of the Brandenburg State Orchestra Frankfurt – that’s Frankfurt on the River Oder (bordering on Poland) not the better known Frankfurt on the River Main. In Zurich, he was Principal Conductor of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, handing over the baton to Muhai Tang, then Sir Roger Norrington and now Daniel Hope. This was Griffiths’ conducting debut with the LPO.

I suspect rehearsal time was on the short side. The symphony sounded much better rehearsed than the short Ravel piece and the accompaniment to the Poulenc concerto.

Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess, dedicated to the Princesse de Polignac, is a dance (originally written for piano) evoking a (fictitious) Spanish princess. The piece failed to bloom as it can – the strings of the LPO really do not have a sensuous sound. However, the woodwind made a firm impression, as did the horns in their exposed opening, and the shimmering harp added impressionist colour.

Ravel tired of conductors playing the piece too slowly, once exclaiming that it was a “Pavane for a Dead Princess, not a Dead Pavane for a Princess”. Griffiths did not fall into that trap and kept a steady and moderate beat.

Poulenc’s music for piano makes such a welcome change from the usual Mozart, but this performance never really came alive. The Turkish Pekinel sisters (identical twins) sat behind each other, so they had no eye contact. The piece is technically not all that difficult – the sisters have recorded it a few years ago. The skill is getting the ensemble right, which they certainly managed. There was however little joie de vivre, despite one sister disconcertingly almost mouthing the notes as she played, the other making facial gestures in tune with the music. The LPO seemed not to know the piece that well and the percussion section (including castanets and side drum) sounded hesitant. A pity, as the piece should be more vivacious (it was incidentally also dedicated to the same Princess as the Ravel).

I was hitherto unaware that Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony had the nickname “The English”. The programme note revealed that there is nothing English about the work at all but after Dvořák fell out at that time with his publisher Fritz Simrock, he turned to Vincent Novello in England as his new publisher.
The symphony is a torrent of joyous melodies, with a brooding darker section in the slow movement. The LPO impressed in all sections, particularly the celli; South African leader Pieter Schoeman was splendid, ably backed by Bulgarian Vesselin Gellev next to him. It was good to spot some “old” faces near the front, Geoffrey Lynn at the back of the first violins and Santiago Carvalho on cello, both stalwarts of the orchestra since the early 1970s. Paul Beniston, principal trumpet, also stood out.

Griffiths was in full command of his players and the score and delivered a well-crafted and scintillating performance.

The concert was repeated a day later in Basle.

John Rhodes

Leave a Comment