Classical: Pass the baton, please

RPO 50th Anniversary Gala Royal Albert Hall, London
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The unpopular notion that an orchestra is only as good as its conductor gained special credence at Wednesday night's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra 50th Anniversary Gala concert at the Royal Albert Hall. It was Sir Thomas Beecham who started the ball rolling back in 1947, with a variety of maestri following on thereafter; but having the one orchestra parade its talents under Gareth Wood, Reinhard Goebel, Sir Simon Rattle, Jose Collado and Marcello Rota, all in a single evening, spoke volumes about who could do what.

Wood's way with Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man was rightly proud and bold (the Gala's second beneficiary was the Elton John Aids Foundation), but when Goebel took the baton for Mozart's Double Piano Concerto in E flat, all the gestural dynamism in the world couldn't inspire the kind of keenly attenuated phrasing that Goebel habitually draws from his own Musica Antiqua of Cologne. You could see what he meant but not hear it, although the Labeque sisters' brittle reportage of their joint solo line - all busy-busy with the odd exaggerated counter-subject - was spirited enough in its own right. Lukewarm acknowledgement after each movement suggested an uncomprehending audience, especially at the end of the piece, where applause would have died altogether had it not been for the prompt of a bouquet presentation.

Beyond Vanessa Redgrave's well-chosen words on the blight of Aids came the evening's interpretative high spot, a vividly etched account of Elgar's Enigma Variations under Sir Simon Rattle, sensitive, responsive and rather more spontaneous than Rattle's CBSO recording. Here was a great conductor employing personal magnetism to fine re-creative effect, and I cannot imagine that the orchestra has played better for anyone else over the past 10 years or so. A pity that the hushed opening of "Nimrod" was invaded by the sound-polluting alliance of a police siren and a mobile phone.

The Gala's second half was dominated by solo performers, with the RPO resting on its laurels for some harmless hack-work. First to appear was Singaporean violinist Lee-Chin Siow, a comely youngster with more technique than Vanessa Mae and a more lustrous tone than Sarah Chang; but Sarasate's spicy re-hash of themes from Carmen was occasionally beyond her means - either that, or nerves got the better of her. Verdi's "La donna e mobile" should have followed, but an unannounced change of programme meant that Collado kept to his post and gave us some orchestral Verdi instead, the Aida "Triumphal March" with a snatch of the ballet music thrown in for good measure. Next came the blind tenor Andrea Bocelli, escorted on stage by Marcello Rota, and lyrical, if a mite inhibited, in Tosti's "La Serenata".

Montserrat Caballe employed a less-than-pristine instrument for tender- voiced renditions of Puccini, Barbieri and Vangelis ("Like a Dream", with Caballe's own lyrics), lovely singing with minor flaws that, as with "late" Garland, Piaf or Callas, activated tear-ducts rather than critical faculties.

The "last shout" went to Bocelli, not with the promised Traviata "Brindisi", but with the re-scheduled "La donna e mobile", a real tour de force, and even better the second time around. He alone was called back again and again.

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