Ólafsson shines in John Adams but Anna Clyne and Mahler from Rouvali and the Philharmonia disappoints

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Anna Clyne, Adams, Mahler: Víkingur Ólafsson (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Santtu-Matias Rouvali (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 22.9.2022. (CC)

The Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali © Mark Allan

Anna ClyneMasquerade (2013)
John AdamsMust the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2018)
Mahler – Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor (1902, rev. 1904, 1911)

How fascinating to have two Mahler Fifth Symphonies in such close succession, one just nine days ago in Berlin’s Philharmonie with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski (review click here). That was a mammoth concert and now it was heard again at the Southbank with the Philharmonia under their Principal Conductor, Santtu-Matias Rouvali.

Jurowski’s take was lean, sometimes mean, and propulsive. In my review of his performance I was minded to recall Leonard Bernstein, and yet Rouvali taught me to appreciate what I had heard. Rouvlali’s was shallow Mahler, upbeats distended regularly but with little or no meaning, and almost none of the propulsive forward momentum of the initial funeral march. Rouvali missed the core of Mahler’s writing, so that while he revealed many details, there was no connecting thread. No missing individual or section achievements, most notably the phenomenally creamy yet clear trombones or the horn contributions of Diego Incertis Sánchez, but the whole felt insubstantial. As did the second movement (or the second section of the first part, as the symphony is divided into three). This felt literal, lots of detail but little sense of an Urschrei (primal scream), either from tutti or woodwind. Some passages sounded oddly, disconcertingly random, although there was a good sense of Mahlerian world-weariness later on.

The third movement was the best. Sánchez remained part of the core horn group (in Berlin, the player had relocated to a distance to emphasise his solo role) and his playing confirmed what a fine Principal appointment he is. Rouvali found a nice sense of the dance here; the famous Adagietto, too, was well done, identifiably Adagietto, conducted minus baton, the Philharmonia strings sounding magnificent, each line beautifully projected. Rouvali eschewed an immediate start to the finale, pausing to collect his baton which felt strangely disruptive, and the finale itself was markedly rapid and yet uninvolving, the final brass peroration arriving suddenly and losing much of its meaning.

A sadly disappointing performance: all the more of a pity given the Philharmonia’s long history with Mahler’s music, a facet underlined in an essay in the programme by Gavin Plumley.

First up in the concert was a piece by British, US-based composer Anna Clyne, her Masquerade, written for the Last Night of the Proms in 2013 (itself an historic evening as it was the first time in the history of the BBC Proms that a female conductor, Marin Alsop, took the podium). No surprise then that she remained London-centric in her inspiration, specifically Vauxhall’s ‘Pleasure Gardens’ and the celebrations that took place there, elaborate affairs filled with entertainers, dancers and … lots of people in masks (hence the title). Clyne uses two principal ideas, the first her own, a ‘welcoming’ into the masquerade heard in the strings, and later a faster, more upbeat section which uses a tune from John Playford’s 1695 The English Dancing Master, the drinking song Juice of Barley.

One can hear the piece and follow the Boosey score (here) in the Avie performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop and I do suggest that those that were present at the Philharmonia concert might want to do so. Alsop’s performance is altogether more convincing. The obvious consonant harmonic and intervallic references sounded forced under Rouvali, yet they become a natural part of Clyne’s make-up under Alsop, who clearly fully understood the piece. Just looking at the score itself, one can see the gestural nature of Clyne’s writing. In Rouvali’s performance, long-breathed melody sounded derivatively filmic; in the Alsop those melodies take on a real sense of depth of emotion. In Rouvali’s performance the disjunction between the Romantically-referencing moments and the more overtly modernistic writing seemed incongruous; overall, it felt an ill-considered reading. Masquerade is scored for vast orchestra (I did find myself wondering if she needed quite so much, but if one is writing for the Last Night, why not indeed?). Hearing it live the best I could say was that, in retrospect, it fitted with the Adams (which some might find damning with faint praise); listen to the link to hear a finely constructed work, full of white-hot energy, a perfect fit for its original purpose, and beyond.

Víkingur Ólafsson plays Must the Devil have All the Good Tunes? © Mark Allan

John Adams’s Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes has enjoyed much currency through the championing of Yuja Wang and the subsequent recording on DG with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Inspired by the popular saying that was to become its title, this 2018 piece is effectively Adams’s Third Piano Concerto (after Eros Piano of 1989 and Century Rolls of 1997). It was another DG pianist who was the soloist on this occasion, the superb Víkingur Ólafsson. The saying ‘Must the Devil have all the good tunes?’ reminded Adams of Liszt’s Totentanz, which he updated to a ‘funk-invested American style’. The three sections seem to take the skeleton of a traditional three movement concerto, fast-slow-fast(er), heard without break, with individual movement indications very much of our time: ‘Gritty, funky, but in Ólafsson’s strict tempo; Twitchy, Bot-like’; ‘Much Slower: Gentle, relaxed’; ‘Più mosso: Obsession/Swing’.

The characteristic repeated sequences with displacements places this instantly within the Minimalist world, and certainly, later disjunctions between orchestra and piano were exciting. What enabled this performance to shine, though, was playing, perfectly judged, spiky, clear, rhythmically impeccable, the bass perfectly articulated. He seemed to hint at times at a Prokofiev influence on Adams’s writing. The dreamy central panel held much beauty (including a wonderful piano/clarinet alternation at one point) but musically it felt like not much was happening. There is no doubting Ólafsson’s grasp of the music, nor of the beauty he can create through the sheer purity of his sound. For all of the charming nature of the slow swing/dance moments, this movement feels weak. The finale, though, is fascinating, from its gently throbbing opening through to what sounds to my ears like a brief homage to Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto in some chordal ascents. Rouvali worked well with his soloist, the orchestra nicely on the ball here.

Ólafsson gave one encore, which he dedicated to a friend who had been laid to rest that day, an incredibly tender performance of The Arts and the Hours (which one can hear on Ólafsson’s DG album of Debussy and Rameau).

Colin Clarke

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