Arts: A family affair

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AFTER SUMMER stints at Glyndebourne and at the Proms, the London Philharmonic Orchestra was back in residence at the Festival Hall on Sunday evening. Introducing the new season, its artistic director Serge Dornay remarked that it was an LPO family outing. In the second half, the orchestra played in Brahms's German Requiem under its principal conductor designate, Kurt Masur. Before the interval, its junior relation, the London Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, directed by Ilan Volkov, preceded it with Dvorak.

Indeed, it was also a family outing for a trio of Dvorak overtures heard more often singly than together, as they were played by the LPYO. A common motto theme unites them, and In Nature's Realm, Carnival and Othello work well as a triptych, even if composer's good spirits insist on animating even the most sombre of his inventions inflecting the Shakespearian tone poem.

This is the least easy of the three to bring off, and a concept of shape and phrasing that might relate the opening juxtaposition of chorale and string recitatives was not greatly in evidence. Fine woodwind solos, with backing of agile violins in the second theme of Carnival, and the rolling acres of violins and flutes from In Nature's Realm had nonetheless already established the credentials of these youngsters to play skilfully.

If unodious comparisons were to be drawn between them and the LPO after the interval, it came in the balance of within the rest of the band. Where the LPYO's trumpets and trombones at times distorted the textural balance, the contrast was with the hushed LPO trombones and horns in the seventh and final movement of the German Requiem.

Masur's reading was neither brash nor emphatic, yet he achieved a pronouncement of the work's message of solace and calm that might have turned the opinion of even those most allergic to the work's unyielding character. The Royal Opera House Chorus were clearly not of this number, given their totally committed response to Masur's direction and their ability to fill the hall with vocal sound at either end of their dynamic range. Soprano Christiane Oelze was a soft voice of reassurance in "Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit", her phrases beautifully echoed by chorus and orchestra.

But the dominating presence was of baritone Thomas Quasthoff, a lieder and oratorio artist of operatic intensity. He rendered the sixth movement as an impassioned dialogue between collective and individual hope for salvation, Masur reining in the Bachian sequences and Beethovenian phrasing of the triumphal assertion "O death, where is thy sting?" to give pathos minus sentimentality. It was a bracing moment, its tone of restrained command standing for that of the entire performance.

Nicholas Williams