MUSIC / In the dark: Anthony Payne on Richter and the St Louis SOat the South Bank

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The Independent Culture
A tiny spotlight picked out the music on the piano stand. The rest of the Royal Festival Hall was in darkness, including the great pianist who was about to open his Sunday afternoon recital. In that brief moment Sviatoslav Richter's philosophy was dramatically projected - the music brilliantly focused, the performer avoiding the limelight. Yet much of what followed seemed curiously lacking in the intensity of communication which that darkened stage and spotlight seemed to promise.

The first half was all Bach. Both in the opening Fantasia in C minor, BWV 921, and more than once thereafter, Richter seemed unaware of his audience and merely went through the motions of performing. With the greater structural range and intellectual fibre of the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro, BWV 998, he did begin to communicate on a more urgent level.

Both here and in the Fantasia, Adagio and Fugue, BWV 906 / 968, however, Richter often left us in two minds as to what he was offering. At times one sensed an Olympian detachment, at others something that amounted almost to a lack of interest in communication.

After the interval, in Beethoven's Pathetique, he might have given the impression that he was opening up to his audience, but the drama of the composer's vision was probably chiefly responsible; while, in Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy, moments of impressive mystery and sprung rhythm were juxtaposed with playing that seemed non-committal. A standing ovation testified to the great respect in which this magisterial artist is held, but on the present occasion there had been a puzzling lack of intensity.

A few hours later Leonard Slatkin brought the St Louis Symphony Orchestra to the same hall and presented the kind of enterprising programme for which they have become renowned. At the end of a packed European tour they were still playing with vigour and enthusiasm, and not the least of their achievements was the contemplative calm their string section instilled into Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia.

This was an interpretation of great splendour which, through virtuosity of the truest kind, generated spiritual intensity without show, the play of echo-sonorities articulating visionary planes of great poignancy. Also superbly shaped was Strauss's Ein Heldenleben, the final item. Solo contributions from all sections were as impressive as the overall ensemble discipline, and the orchestra's fire and energy proved unquenchable to the last.

Earlier we heard the UK premiere of William Bolcom's Lyric Concerto, with James Galway a mercurial flute soloist. Bolcom employed the huge orchestra he had chosen to support his soloist with tact and skill. His use of popular material was not always successfully integrated, however, despite moments of folkloristic charm, and the final impression was of a rather cumbersome collection of conflicting elements.