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Rachlin, Oslo PO, Mäkelä, Oslo Konserthus/Perianes, LPO, Berman, RFH review - the best-laid plans… | reviews, news & interviews

Rachlin, Oslo PO, Mäkelä, Oslo Konserthus/Perianes, LPO, Berman, RFH review - the best-laid plans…

Rachlin, Oslo PO, Mäkelä, Oslo Konserthus/Perianes, LPO, Berman, RFH review - the best-laid plans…

Finnish phenomenon falls sick on the day of his London concert, but the show goes on

The amazing Klaus Mäkelä conducting in Oslo last ThursdayFred-Olav Vatne

The headline was never going to be snappy, but “Klaus Mäkelä conducts…” as a start would have pulled it all together. A trip to Oslo last week was not wasted: he did indeed take charge of one of his two main orchestras, in a typically offbeat programme, a total sensation (*****).

But when he called in sick from his hotel room yesterday morning, the London Philharmonic Orchestra sequel ((****), featuring two of the same composers, had to go ahead without him and also without Kaija Saariaho’s Asteroid 4179:Toutatis, programmed by Mäkelä to lead us straight into Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra.

Young British conductor Jonathan Berman (pictured below by George Garner) did an excellent job under difficult circumstances . The opening gambit in the shape of John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine, a lure to young concertgoers if ever there was one, began not only at the immediate bidding of a high, clear beat but also with the kind of phosphorescent sound, especially from the London Philharmonic brass, I’d witnessed the previous Thursday in Oslo. Two rehearsals with Mäkelä before he fell ill must have helped.Jonathan BermanThere wouldn’t have been time to fine-tune Zarathustra to make the kind of incandescent textures and perspectives – difficult, always, in the Festival Hall – Strauss’s more mysterious and (for the mid-1890s) avant-garde passages need to startle. But this first half of the work was much more personable than Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s Philharmonia interpretation made it last September, Berman seemingly in command of the tricky transitions from mountain-peak to cliff edge, down into the abyss and up to the heights again; his championship of late-romantic Franz Schmidt puts him in the right zone. I’d expected more character from leader Peter Schoeman in the Dance Song – which had brought the Philharmonia performance to personable life in a kind of double-concerto from the joint leaders – and more generosity from the players to their valiant conductor at the end. Presentation to the audience still needs more work.

Berman’s greatest achievement was to have looked at Peruvian firebrand Jimmy López's new Piano Concerto, composed for the very special sounds of pianist Javier Perianes (pictured below by Igor Studio) for the first time that morning and to keep the orchestra phantasmagorically in synch with the soloist. No wonder Perianes’ first gesture at the end was to applaud and embrace his conductor. As LPO artistic director Elena Dubinets said at the beginning, this is a work that should stay in the repertoire. It’s there – horror! – to entertain the audience, with an abundance of sensual and full-blooded sounds to match the scents López says he’s trying to capture. Javier PerianesI hadn’t looked at the programme before the performance - first impressions are best unguided by what the composer says - but when I did, I learned that Ephemerae, as the work turns out to be called, aims to represent the sources of fragrances synaesthesically, and wouldn’t have guessed that. But how refreshing the piano’s distinctive opening gambit and its woodwind riposte are after the usual splash of percussion that starts many a new work, and what momentum there is in the first-movement “Bloom”. Simon Rattle has written about early impressions of John Adams’ music that “it always seemed to be moving forward in space”, and that's true of the López effect too.

The piano part is often concertante, alongside rather than in front of, the orchestra, as in Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain (Debussy's and Ravel's impressions of Spain are never far away, either). But there was special magic in what felt like the nocturne of the central “Primal Forest”. López writes in the programme that he was inspired by Perianes’ “otherworldly touch…capable of reaching the nether regions”, and his faith turns out to be fully justified. I like, too, the exciting transition to the dance-finale (“Spice Bazaar”). The audience seemed held throughout.

As was its Oslo counterpart in the López curtainraiser last Thursday (*****), Peru Negro. This orchestra has to work extra-hard against the impossible acoustics of its triangular concert hall (a shoebox-model newcomes has to be given the go-ahead on the harbour, to complement one of the most beautiful contemporary opera-houses in the world, and the even more recent National Museum – due to open in June – Munch Museum and Library). But that means an extra brilliance of sound, and the Oslo Philharmonic brass pealed out at the start of another vibrant crowd-pleaser. López has the ideal knack of marrying unpredictable dance-rhythms to kaleidoscopic textures, never letting the impact flag across the 20-minute span. (pictured below by Fred-Olav Vatne: Mäkelä conducting the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra on the night of the concert)Oslo Philharmonic and Klaus MakelaIf only Saariaho were more interested in the hooks as well as the sound-world. That’s still not enough, brilliantly prepared though her new half-hour orchestral work Vista certainly was. Mäkelä told me the previous afternoon that he had been much more impressed by Saariaho’s most recent opera, Innocence, than by its predecessors, and he felt this concert work was a sideshoot, a new world, though its inspiration (in the Californian landscape, a far cry from the school shooting which is the subject of the opera) seems to be different. There’s an explosion of violence in the second movement, but the textures then settle back to the Saariaho effect as usual.

The real stunners of Mäkelä’s typically generous and thoughtful programme-planning were the known quantities. You simply don’t play Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto if you’re not prepared to go deep and painful. After an opening movement with all the subtleties of a great Shakespeare monologue, to the cusp of audibility, Julian Rachlin (pictured below by Fred Olav Vatne) went on the attack. Bowhairs flew, though the strings of his instrument held; miraculously, he kept perfect intonation throughout all this. Listening to it last night or this morning, the black day of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, would have left me in a heap. As it was, the exultation won out. A well-deserved instant standing ovation followed. Julian Rachlin, Klaus Makela and the Oslo PhilharmonicAs it did for the final holocaust, Bartók’s Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin. The sado-masochistic ballet-pantomime can never have had a more blistering kick-off from strings in the opening cityscape; I’ll remember the impact of that attack, especially from the violas – which Mäkelä had seated to his right – as long as I live. In between the introduction and the stomp in which the Mandarin pursues the horrified girl who’s lured him to be attacked by her gangster controllers, a much more effective concert ending than the too-illustrative stages of his killing and death which conclude the ballet – there was dangerous but never excessive freedom for the lures of the clarinet solos, the glissandoing trombone, the Salome-like sensuousness of the mating dance. All these players burn for Mäkelä; I haven’t met a musician yet who doesn’t think he’s the Messiah. Let’s hope he’s well enough to conduct Saturday night’s LPO concert.

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