Review: An orchestra driven to distraction

Philharmonia/John Eliot Gardiner; Royal Festival Hall, London
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In the South is Elgar's "Italian job", a bracing souvenir from the Gulf of Genoa, sun-drenched, forceful and fitfully idyllic - though good old London Town is never out of our hearing for very long. John Eliot Gardiner's Philharmonia performance at the Royal Festival Hall last Thursday night passed on luxuriant textures in favour of a quick round-tour, untidily articulated by the strings, powerfully declaimed by the brass and with bruising thwacks on the big drums. The exquisite Canto popolare that sits at the work's core was warmly voiced by violist Roger Benedict and the warring forces that precede it had plenty of visceral impact.

Gardiner's penchant for period portamento sugared the odd phrase here and there, but much of the faster music was breathless and lacking in weight.

Brahms's First Symphony opened in a similar vein and improved as it progressed, but the first movement seemed impatient and ill-tempered. You could sense what Gardiner was getting at (freshness rather than stodge), but ragged ensemble and uncomfortable ritardandi spoiled the effect of the whole. Once out of top gear, Gardiner calmed for a cool but curvaceous Andante sostenuto, hurried along in the Allegretto and made a seductively gentle first statement of the finale's big string them. And the sum effect? More interesting than involving. Between Elgar and Brahms, Sibelius's Violin Concerto found Gidon Kremer straying from the note's centre. True, he gave a fabulous display in the first movement's big central cadenza, but Gardiner's conducting was more dutiful than inspired - until the finale, where everything suddenly slid into focus and the temperature rose significantly. Initial suspicions of a deadlock disagreement between soloist and conductor were visually nullified when Kremer dragged the reluctant conductor into the limelight of applause. Had I missed something? Not in the finale. Monday night's concert was rather more impressive, with Elgar again as a curtain-raiser, the Introduction and Allegro for strings suggesting a fast Harley ride across the Malverns. Gardiner moulded the introduction with care, but rather than ease into the Allegro, took off abruptly, with little time to breathe thereafter. Chopin would have come next had Maria Joao Pires not succumbed to flu, but as it happened Anne Queffelec gave a passionately outspoken rendition of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, a little at odds with Gardiner in the first movement (a warmly arpeggiated opening chord signalled one possible route, and Gardiner's accelerating first tutti, another), but with a playful finale and an appropriately inward account of the slow movement.

Gardiner's approach to orchestral layout had varied from work to work, with divided violins and lower strings on the left of stage in the first concert, basses ranged across the rear in the Introduction and Allegro (where fiddles and violas abandoned their chairs) and with the more familiar "lower strings to the right/upper strings to the left" arrangement for the rest. Given Gardiner's bullish Brahms First, I braced myself for his Dvorak Eighth, a justifiable enough stance for the hard-pressed outer movements, but needlessly in the heart-rendering Adagio, which was as responsive, imaginative, affectionate and attentive as any I've heard in concert. It was as if Gardiner's heart had become his Achilles' heel, and Dvorak alone knew where to strike.

Rob Cowan