The large queue for returns at the Festival Hall gave notice of a special event, with two performers who rarely appear in London coming together in a single concert. Conducting the Philharmonia in a programme celebrating his debut with the orchestra 35 years ago was Italian maestro Riccardo Muti; in the soloist's spotlight for the Schumann Piano Concerto was the reclusive Romanian Radu Lupu.
Lupu is not known as a recluse because he does not play in public; he does. But he distances himself from the hype of the international classical musical world and avoids journalists. His platform manner is unassuming and literally laid back, as he seems to loll carelessly in his chair. No regular piano stool for him.
But his playing is something special, and much admired by fellow pianists such as Daniel Barenboim and Mitsuko Uchida (the latter in the audience on this occasion). The Schumann is, in any case, the least showy and most introverted of the great Romantic piano concertos, and in the first two movements Lupu's intimate, almost withdrawn manner, combined with his absolute mastery of half-lit tones, magically evoked Schumann the dreamer. Muti and the Philharmonia matched him so sensitively that the result had a delicate reticence and understatement which brought the audience unforgettably close to the heart of the music. The finale, which calls on a brilliance and exuberance that Lupu does not seem to want to enter into, went less well, but as a whole the experience was one to treasure.
Visually, soloist and conductor made an odd pair, Lupu with his wild and woolly looks, like someone dragged unwillingly into the concert hall but asked to leave his begging-bowl outside, Muti with his raven hair and aristocratic Italian features still intact. At 66 he remains the most glamorous figure on the podium today.
But his reputation is as an authoritarian. His departure in 2005 from La Scala, which he had led with considerable success for 19 frequently stormy years, was not a happy affair. It was said the orchestra had had about enough of him. Following his row with Covent Garden in 2004, which left Antonio Pappano to pick up the pieces of a borrowed La Scala production of La forza del destino when the managements of the two theatres came close to blows over health and safety issues regarding the sets, he'll never conduct there again, either.
But his relationship with the Philharmonia, who offered him the job of principal conductor after just one date in Croydon back in 1972, not only gave Muti vital experience and an international platform, but has clearly endured. The last work on the programme Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition in the standard Ravel orchestration showed the sheer discipline that Muti brings to his work. Every last semiquaver precisely in place, the result was sonically thrilling, even if other interpreters accentuate more the grotesquerie Mussorgsky saw in the paintings by Victor Hartman that he translated into music.
It was the first piece that was astonishing. Beethoven's overture The Consecration of the House, written for the reopening of a Viennese theatre in 1822, is often considered dull, the German master's rather worthy tribute to the composer he admired above all his Baroque predecessor Georg Frideric Handel. But in Muti's hands it had a warmth and humanity that pushed it towards the category of Beethoven's masterpieces. The depth and sheer vitality of tone he drew from his London players could not have been surpassed in Berlin or Vienna. Let's hope Muti's longstanding relationship with the Philharmonia is renewed soon, and often.
The ability to present a neglected piece as something worthy of attention was not, sadly, replicated at Cadogan Hall, where Richard Hickox conducted the City of London Sinfonia in a concert performance of Owen Wingrave. Though it had the largest initial audience of any of Benjamin Britten's operas, with its BBC Television launch in 1971, neither the handful of subsequent stage productions nor the flawless Channel 4 film version of the piece directed by Margaret Williams in 2001 has made it lovable.
The problems lie mainly with the libretto, drawn like that of The Turn of the Screw by Myfanwy Piper from a ghost story by Henry James. It's an opera about a young man from a military family who stands up as a pacifist, provoking their wrath and his own disinheritance. But Britten's theatrical instincts deserted him when he turned Owen's relatives into a set of screaming heads whose full-on anger teeters into caricature. The second problem concerns Owen's mysterious death in the haunted room at Paramore, his ancestral home, where he is found stone cold the morning after being goaded by his furious ex-fiance into spending a night there. There's no rhyme or reason to his death, which seems to happen largely to make Owen's vile family feel suitably guilty.
The caricatured characters seem to inhibit Britten's musical imagination, too. Some of the score, while written with his usual impeccable technical skill, sounds as if it's on autopilot. But the best sections the haunting, folk-like Ballad of the Wingraves, and Owen's paean to peace, with its glittering gamelan accompaniment are magical.
It's a deeply frustrating score, and not even Hickox's savvy way with this repertoire and a strong cast could sell it to us on this occasion. As Owen, Peter Coleman-Wright was diligent but circumspect; he'd no doubt loosen up in a full stage production. Elizabeth Connell swooped and squawked venomously as his elderly Brnnhilde of an aunt, though with not enough words on show. The pained hauteur of Sir Philip Wingrave, Owen's bellicose grandfather, was stamped all over Robin Leggate's face, and Pamela Helen Stephen made as much of Owen's manipulative and mean-spirited fiance Kate as you can without a lemon in your mouth. Yet despite these and other earnest efforts, the fault-lines in the opera itself cracked wide open.
Further reading 'Opera and the Novel: The Case of Henry James' by Michael Halliwell (Rodopi)Reuse content