London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, London

An orchestra on the verge
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The LPO must be feeling truly cursed. First, its principal conductor, Kurt Masur, signs up for minimal concerts and withdraws through illness. Then, its president, Bernard Haitink, posts an offensive note in the programme: "It is with regret that, owing to the burden of my current workload, I have decided to withdraw from this concert. I wish the orchestra well and look forward to renewing our long and fruitful collaboration next season." Next season? He was due to conduct the following Sunday. "Burden of current workload"? Is this greed or unforgivably bad planning?

Fortunately, there are many less burdened conductors, well able and willing to pick up the pieces. In two expensively planned Mozart and Stravinsky programmes, Yan Pascal Tortelier rescued the first. Wednesday's concert began to show an orchestra fraying at the edges. With much-reduced forces, the programme started with a nervous, but finally sparkling, Pulcinella Suite, a work in which Stravinsky first began to borrow from other composers, in this case mainly Pergolesi. Its group of eight dances, on which Stravinsky imposes a lovely 18th-century "wrongness", can often sound twee, but Tortelier homed in on the rawness of its orchestral colouring while briskly bouncing tricky cross-rhythms.

"Real" 18th century came with Mozart, his first great piano concerto, in E flat K271 – and with it some very great playing. Although performing on a tinny Yamaha, Maria João Pires was spellbinding. In Mozart's anguished Andantino, the tension was almost unbearable. Since Clara Haskil, I cannot remember playing of such intimacy, tenderness, and simplicity.

The tension should have been unbearable for The Rite of Spring, but, although Tortelier is one of the most gifted and intelligent musicians around, with no more than a flying visit he's unlikely to be able to address a major problem: the orchestra's tuning or, to be precise, lack of it, in the wind and brass sections. The score is savage, but volume alone will not do.

That Sunday's concert took place at all bordered on the miraculous. Not only was the substitute conductor, Mark Elder, indisposed, but so was the leading lady. Oedipus Rex is no work to perform on scarce rehearsal and one shudders to think what notice Lothar Zagrosek was given to take up the baton, or Jane Henschel to step into Jocasta's shoes. Under the circumstances, a safe rather than dramatic performance took place, whose finest elements were the London Voices male chorus and Timothy West, the moving narrator. Unsurprisingly, the balance between soloists and orchestra was uneven. Stuart Neill (Oedipus) coped adequately with Stravinsky's perilously high register, while Henschel tried to infuse some drama. Everyone must have felt, appropriately, doomed.