tue 20/10/2020

Finley, LPO, Gardner, Royal Festival Hall (p)review - special magic ready for streaming | reviews, news & interviews

Finley, LPO, Gardner, Royal Festival Hall (p)review - special magic ready for streaming

Finley, LPO, Gardner, Royal Festival Hall (p)review - special magic ready for streaming

A privileged glimpse of a great orchestra in full flight back in a much-loved venue

The London Philharmonic Orchestra and Edward Gardner back in the Royal Festival HallAll images by Mark Allan

There was a rainbow over the Royal Festival Hall as I crossed one of the Hungerford foot bridges for the first time in six months. The lights and noises inside did not betray the augury. Was it the sheer hallucinatory pleasure of being within the auditorium with a handful of other spectators watching and hearing a full orchestra after what felt like a lifetime?

There was a rainbow over the Royal Festival Hall as I crossed one of the Hungerford foot bridges for the first time in six months. The lights and noises inside did not betray the augury. Was it the sheer hallucinatory pleasure of being within the auditorium with a handful of other spectators watching and hearing a full orchestra after what felt like a lifetime? Partly, perhaps, but I’ll swear that the building-out of the stage to accommodate players at a proper distance has made a difference to the sound. Never again will I diss the Southbank Centre’s main auditorium – I didn’t realise how much I loved it until now – nor what, until last night, I always thought of as the problems (my problems, no doubt) of Beethoven Five in its second and final movements.

Those just floated and soared from the London Philharmonic Orchestra under its Principal Conductor Designate Edward Gardner. (pictured below) The mighty Fifth was the last work to be heard in the hall before lockdown, in Esa-Pekka Salonen's Philharmonia reconstruction of the epic 1808 concert Beethoven presented in Vienna (I still can't regret being at the Barbican that same evening, 15 March, witnessing "the rest is silence" in the dying-out "Epilogo" of Vaughan Williams's Sixth Symphony from the London Symphony Orchestra and Antonio Pappano). Edward Gardner in the Royal Festival HAllThis was an exceptional programme, too: no grey or elegiac start of the kind we’ve become rather used to hearing in these times but the Beethovenian jest of Widmann’s Con brio, razor sharp in its burps and lunges, and a rare chance to hear Einojuhani Rautavaara’s haunting and often counter-intuitive arrangements of Sibelius songs, made especially for the baritone Gerald Finley and recorded by him shortly after Rautavaara’s death with Gardner and his other orchestra, the Bergen Philharmonic (together they gave the premiere in 2014).

The orchestra sometimes tugs against the singer, it would seem deliberately, but the colourings are idiomatic Sibelius, especially clarinets in octaves. The deepest, darkest of the selected songs, “The tree,” found Finley (pictured below) on top form at the plangent higher extreme of the register as the storm-ravaged sentinel yearning for death, capped by a brooding orchestral postlude: the territory of the Fourth Symphony, which followed the Op. 57 set of songs from which Rautavaara chose two for his selection. Only the last of his choices, "Black Roses", would be familiar to most listeners, and in many ways it's the most conventional of the sequence - though only by Sibelius's extraordinary standards. Gerald Finley in the Royal Festival HallWhat more to say about the Beethoven? No tricks, just perfect continuity and seemingly “right” tempi, which may have been why the tricky Andante con moto seemed to flow like a river without rocks in the middle, never outstaying its welcome as it often does. Gardner stage-managed pianissimos and crescendos to perfection, and the finale felt like sheer elevated joy, not hard-hitting insistence on victory. No doubt the players felt the freshness of revisiting a familiar work after so long a parting from each other. The lighting for the film – you can watch it from 30 September – transfigured the hall, with those futuristic boxes glowing neonist-white, and the empty front stalls – four critics and a handful of patrons were admitted from row BB back – added to the supernatural quality of the experience. It should be even better when a proper socially-distanced audience is readmitted, but until the end of this year, at least, that doesn't look possible. The Barbican, on the other hand, has plans to open up - watch this space.

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