MUSIC / The energy gap: LPO / Welser-Most - Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture
THERE was a hint of a theme in Sunday's London Philharmonic Orchestra programme. Shostakovich's First Symphony is a youthful masterpiece - in fact it took its composer several years to regain such heights of maturity. Schubert's Mass in E flat could also be described as a youthful masterpiece: as Tovey said, a composer who died at 31 is unlikely to have got much past the 'early' stage. And conducting these was a young would-be master, Franz Welser-Most.

The London Philharmonic played with technical assurance for Welser-Most in both pieces. A moment of unsteady ensemble near the start of the first movement was the only passing blemish. But it was rather longer before the First Symphony began to show much of that nervous, even feverish energy that can make its musical narrative so gripping. Care in the phrasing and rhythmic pointing was obvious, but a sense of inner tension was far more sporadic.

In the Schubert, the case was more complicated. Whatever his harsher critics say about him, Welser-Most has ideas, some of them rather interesting - about tempo in Bruckner for instance. But there often seems to be a problem when it comes to translating those ideas into a living, immediate experience. The effect of Welser-Most's thinking on Schubert's fugues was salutary, up to a point. In a less than sympathetic performance these long contrapuntal stretches can sound like someone treading grapes in lead boots. Welser-Most lightened the tread and gave each fugue a sense of broad shape.

But ardour? Exultation? Those weren't the kind of words that leapt to mind, despite some fairly determined singing from the London Philharmonic Choir. It was a similar story in some of the other big choral moments: the Agnus Dei, the 'Agnus' section of the Gloria, and the astonishing Sanctus, with its earth-moving harmonic shifts. And in the profanely beautiful 'Et incarnatus est' the music seemed unable to relax, to enjoy itself for the wonderful, self-justifying thing it is, even given persuasive singing from a fine team of soloists. The E flat mass should be a work of huge contrasts and range of feeling. There were moments in which Welser-Most at least seemed to be on the right track - the handling of the extreme dark-light contrasts in the Agnus Dei, for example - but they were islands in a cold sea.

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