This has been a very good year for the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Under Vladimir Jurowski, Markus Stenz, Louis Langrée and other maestri they have closed the perceived gap between themselves and their local rivals, the Philharmonia and the London Symphony Orchestra. At their colour-saturated Glyndebourne best, they have even given the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House a run for their money. So why are they finishing such an illustrious year with a Beethoven cycle with Kurt Masur?
Thinking of the conductors whose Beethoven cycles I'd really like to hear the LPO play - Mackerras, Norrington, Bruggen, Fischer, Elder - Masur is not among them. There's nothing tangibly wrong with his suave Beethoven, but nothing grippingly right about it either. Nothing to capture the radicalism of this music (a quality often underestimated in the first two symphonies), to make you laugh with delight at Beethoven's audacity, to make you gasp at the ferocity of his dissonances, or to make you feel the shock of witnessing history change in a single note. Mine is, of course, a wholly subjective opinion. But what I want to hear in Beethoven is revolution.
Somewhat grudgingly, I will say this for Masur's first and second Beethoven symphonies: they're not faked, and, taken on their own courteous, silver-service terms, they work. But in the dry acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall, there's something counter-intuitive about the way Masur manicures individual phrases. The violins were not unanimous in their short-bowed articulation of the first statements of the allegro con brio in either first movement of the first and second symphonies - the violas, on the other hand, were brilliantly cohesive and committed, as was the intelligently shaped timpani - and Masur's insistent dampening of their tone was akin to a choirmaster asking adult sopranos to sing like boy trebles.
The balance between the woodwind and strings was problematic, as it tends to be when using modern instruments - though I remember Mackerras's blistering Seventh Symphony with the Philharmonia achieving a more persuasive compromise in the same building last November. It's a shame to obscure such sweetly detailed playing as that of the LPO's principal flute and oboe. More worrying was the sense of Masur using the earlier symphonies as a warm-up for the Eroica. However impressive the full weight and glow of Masur's almost Mahlerian marche funebre, and however much it promises for the next six symphonies - the series continues in January - I felt short-changed by his apparent equation of the words "early" and "lesser". The LPO - and Beethoven - deserve better.
If you and your children missed Francesca Zambello's enchanting film of Rachel Portman's opera The Little Prince - premiered on BBC 2 last night - I doubt you will have more than 54 weeks to wait for a repeat broadcast. Like Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, which The Little Prince recalls in even measure with Britten's Ceremony of Carols, Portman's opera has the hallmark of an instant Christmas classic. With delicious designs from the late Maria Bjornson - the prettiest I've seen since Bergman's film of Die Zauberflöte - and excellent performances from 11 year-old Joseph McManners, 15 year-old Mairead Carlin, a 38-strong chorus of children, and operatic luminaries such as Willard White, The Little Prince is a significant addition to the small but crucial canon of children's operas. Delightful.Reuse content