MUSIC / Open house: London Philharmonic - Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture
After listening to concerts in the Royal Albert Hall for the last two months, attending the opening of the London Philharmonic's first season as resident orchestra at the Festival Hall induced something of a culture shock. Indeed, some of the tough-edged sonorities which the orchestra produced in an oddly wide-ranging and extremely long programme (three parts, two intervals) would undoubtedly have benefited from the more generous acoustic of the RAH.

Schumann's Second Symphony was given the sort of performance, under Franz Welser-Most's direction, which very nearly resurrected those doubts about the composer's orchestration that used to obsess his critics. It has been proved how successful that instrumentation can sound on period instruments, and with due care on a conductor's part a modern orchestra can reproduce those textures.

Welser-Most's hard-driven impetus and insistent attack combined with the acoustic to produce a rather graceless sonority, robbing the slow movement of its incandescent tenderness, and bringing a hard fierceness to the quick movements. The Second Symphony is full of echoes of Beethoven, but it should not be played as if it were by him, and here one felt his dynamism looming a little too large.

Beethoven himself had featured earlier on with Maurizio Pollini's again rather hard-driven performance of the Fourth Piano Concerto, while the concert had opened with Finnish percussionist-composer Rainer Kuisma's Three Galaxies. This drastically under-composed essay in building and dispersing a single climax made one wonder why, on such a prestigious occasion, a British work had not been commissioned.

Finally came a group of works that seemed to have strayed from a completely different concert. Stravinsky's austerely moving Symphonies of Wind could also have done with a more resonant acoustic. Welser-Most paced its unique procession of sonorous objects with the right feeling of tense calm and the brass achieved a fastidious response to Stravinsky's unique chordal spacing. Yet the music did not ring in the air quite as it should, and the hall's dry sound was largely to blame.

Britten's Prelude and Fugue fared better, and a brilliant performance pointed up the superbly physical writing to perfection. Finally, as a rumbustious conclusion, came Prokofiev's suite The Love of Three Oranges. Despite its vitality, it tends to make a rather haphazard impression away from the theatre, and not even the London Philharmonic's fiery performance could disguise the fact.