London Philharmonic Orchestra / Nézet-Séguin, Royal Festival Hall, London
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Volkov, Royal Festival Hall, London

'Music for the Royal Fireworks' takes off like a rocket

Infectiously energetic, with an ear for the sweetest curve and swell of a phrase, and a taste for the silkiest pianissimi, Yannick Nézet-Séguin opened his performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra with a declaration of war.

For 30 years, the early music movement has owned Handel. Yet here was the LPO, reduced, but still with three double basses and an armour-plated harpsichord, playing Music for the Royal Fireworks, each dance ending with a perfect, oval-shaped chord and peppered with notes inégales, those teasingly swung quavers that whisper Historically Informed Performance Practice.

If this bold, stylistically diverse programme was an audition, Nézet-Séguin has got the job. Though the bass line was a tad smooth and the continuo realisation dated, his Handel had tremendous sensuality and pep, while the spendthrift scoring of Stravinsky's 1908 miniature, Fireworks, which meant several players earned their fees for six minutes of music, displayed clarity and control. Nézet-Séguin is a sensitive accompanist too. He conjured the faintest wash of nocturnal midsummer sound from the violas at the opening of Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No 1, and bent closely to Lisa Batiashvili's heathery, flinty sound.

The throaty stamp of the Scherzo was startling; the winding staircase of the closing movement sardonic and cool, each enigmatic half-smile from Batiashvili's violin matched by flautist Jaime Martin. Beethoven's Seventh Symphony began with a gasp of elation. Vibrato was kept to a mere blush, the colours in the Allegretto heavy and grave, rubato restricted to the most telling harmonic shifts. This was an outstanding performance from the LPO: virtuosically detailed in articulation and colour, engaged to a level beyond professionalism, with a triumphant final movement performed at Beethoven's whirlwind metronome marking.

Stepping in for Sir Charles Mackerras in the penultimate performance of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's Beethoven Cycle, Ilan Volkov did nothing very distinctive with the first three movements of the Ninth Symphony beyond pressing through those points at which it has become traditional to pause and enjoy the view. If he had, only the woodwind section, the timpanist and the second desk of the violas would have been in a position to respond. Everyone else gazed glumly into middle-distance.

Antony Pay's clarinet cast faint rays of elegance and wonder, while the military band of jingling percussion and flatulent contrabassoon raised a chuckle. But the cellos were wan, the double basses unruly, and the principal and co-principal violinists seldom in accord on questions of articulation.

Revamped by "a scheme to incorporate professional singers in the early years of their careers", the slimmed down Philharmonia Chorus brought vibrancy, bite and panache to a dowdy reading, spurred on by bass soloist Christopher Purves's charismatic declamation of Schiller's text. Nicht diese Töne, indeed! But should Volkov carry the can? It is sad an orchestra formed to be independent should be so dependent on its conductors, playing well only for the very best. And the players' despondency was at odds with the excitement of an audience still willing to be thrilled by this iconic work: the total revolution of the Allegro, the bustling, gossipy anticipation of the Scherzo, its dazzling glimpses of Elysium, the sublime stillness of the Adagio, and that fervent, all-things-to-all-men anthem.

Can the OAE afford to be bored by Beethoven? Aside from the English Baroque Soloists, it has no local period-instrument rivals in early 19th-century repertoire. Yet the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century and Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble are more spirited and refined, while younger ensembles such as La Chambre Philharmonique snap in turn at their Beethovenian heels.

The timbre of period instruments may catch the ear, stop the heart, trigger a lifelong thirst for transparent, heterogenous textures, but unless it is backed up by playing of the utmost flair and technical excellence, all but the finest period orchestras may find themselves made obsolete by HIPP-friendly symphony orchestras such as the LPO. Maybe even, with a change of harpsichord, in Handel.

Next Week:

Andreas Scholl and super-cool lutenist Crawford Young explore the life and music of Oswald von Wolkenstein at the Barbican. Anna Picard listens in

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