MUSIC / On second thought: Anthony Payne on some unusual programming by the RPO and the Philharmonia

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The Independent Culture
In two Festival Hall concerts under Gennadi Rozhdestvensky last week the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra boldly avoided the stereotyped programme, and if the results were mixed - a rather odd combination of rarities by Dvorak and Tchaikovsky in the first programme but a nicely balanced mixture of Haydn, Schubert and Bartok in the second - there was also much to provoke thought.

Paradoxically, it was the failure of the first programme, at least of its opening half, that most challenged perceptions. It was based on one of those ideas that looks enterprising on paper but which ultimately refuses to take fire - interspersing Dvorak's Ten Legends with some of his Russian folksong settings for female voices (Joan Rodgers and Fiona Kimm in lively form) and piano. The sequence lasted over an hour, too long given the moderate pace of the orchestral items, while Rozhdestvensky's constant toing and froing between rostrum and piano, which he played somewhat casually, eventually became irksome.

At a deeper level, however, lay a rather more interesting and subtle problem: for, in orchestrating pieces that had originally been conceived for piano duet, Dvorak forced music intended for domestic consumption into the public domain. Similarly transformed, the Slavonic Dances work better, although, even with their greater range of contrasts, it is doubtful whether we want to hear them complete as a concert item. The Legends, however, insistently proclaim their pianistic origins. One felt how more appropriate they would have sounded in some drawing-room, played by friends; whereas the glare of orchestral presentation in a large hall overwhelmed their sociable and unpretentious gestures.

The second half brought revelations of a different kind, indicating the ruthlessness with which the great artist can discard ideas of outstanding quality in order to focus vision. Few chances occur to hear Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony in its original version and to savour the daring and originality of an opening movement that he subsequently modified so drastically. The all-pervading presence of the opening folk melody gives a monothematic feeling to what is a majestically extended structure. Why did not Tchaikovsky just tidy up a few rambling moments instead of setting it in a quite new context?

The alterations to the other movements seem undoubted improvements, especially the large cut in the finale, which tightens what is already an astonishingly resourceful movement. But the first movement can hardly be said to have been improved, only transformed into an equally viable statement. Both versions ought to be regularly performed.

In the second concert the choice of an unfamiliar but splendid Haydn symphony (No 28 in A), a neglected virtuoso warhorse in Liszt's orchestral version of Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy (Viktoria Postnikova the characterful soloist) and a popular 20th-century masterpiece in Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra made subtle connections and exemplified the well-made, variegated programme. The playing, which earlier had been acceptable, was now much more than that, and Bartok was given with joy and vigour.

The Philharmonia Orchestra has established a tradition for enterprising programming, of course, and it brought a brilliant and neglected masterpiece to the South Bank earlier in the week - Percy Grainger's imaginary ballet, The Warriors. With the tintinnabulating of its tuned percussion, its three pianos and its iconoclastic off-stage brass, which is truly Ivesian in expression, the work has an exhilarating impact. John Eliot Gardiner, the conductor, brought off a rousing performance, but was later stiff-jointed in supporting the sensitive Steven Isserlis in Elgar's Cello Concerto. There were also problems in Holst's The Planets, where tempos were not always ideal and corners were none too adroitly turned.

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