MUSIC / Hummingbirds and primal soup: Meredith Oakes on Franz Welser-Most and the London Philharmonic at the Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture
Familiar composers, but not all familiar works: novelty to this extent did no harm to the box office for the London Philharmonic at the Festival Hall on Monday, with people practically falling out of the organ loft.

Kyung-Wha Chung played not Bruch's First Violin Concerto, the usual one, but the Second in D minor - a clear-toned, elegiac key on the violin. The work is graceful, high-pitched and rhapsodic: a crowd-pleaser whose frail melodies are draped with virtuoso runs and arpeggios. Kyung-Wha Chung poured energy into the gypsy cadences and flew through the decorative passagework with the precision of a hummingbird. The rather short-breathed cantabile arcs of the first movement were traced with melting sweetness, and there was all possible brio in the finale's scatter of hunting scenes. But this doe-eyed, confiding, thematically mundane piece seemed not serious enough to be so humourless, and not lively enough to be so emphatic.

Schubert's beautiful and grave Stabat Mater made a good preface. Its ravishing legato tunes emanate from a dark minor-chordal heart in a way that distinctly recalls the Mozart Requiem; especially as there are trombones in the small accompanying orchestra. The London Philharmonic Choir was really outstanding for the incisive cleanness of its voices, sopranos in particular. Franz Welser-Most, conducting, found the natural pulse that makes Schubert irresistible.

His approach to the Sibelius Fifth Symphony was similarly unpressured, but the result was not always so convincing. There were moments, like the hushed tremor that spread over the strings in the mid-section of the first movement, that proclaimed him a master of atmosphere, but he did not generally strive for focus as sharp as this, seeming inclined to allow for quite a lot of rhythmic slippage between the different orchestral sections.

The Sibelius Fifth is a rhythmically disturbed, idiosyncratically detailed mosaic. Small themes, some of them almost like nursery rhymes, are tossed about with many punning changes of stress, or woven into the fabric in ways that don't quite fit. A laissez-faire reading of a score so full of surprises and contradictions was bound to create insecurities. When things were working well, there was a feeling that the many fragments, dislocated cadences, false endings and trick beginnings were washing in a sort of primal thematic soup from which big effects could surge.

There was Brucknerian intensity in the brassy coda to the scherzo, and the famous swinging fifths and sixths of the last movement sounded luxuriously inevitable. But in the unsure opening pages, or in the pizzicato wanderings of the middle movement, with wind instruments clocking on and off unexpectedly, palpable timidity emerged.

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