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Fauré, Maazel & Sibelius

Fauré: suite from Pelléas et Mélisande
Maazel: Farewells : Symphonic movement op 14

Sibelius: Second Symphony.




Royal Festival Hall 2nd April 2009


Extra proof, if needed, why the Philharmonia is the best orchestra in London.The Philharmonia plays Fauré, Maazel and Sibelius at the Royal Festival Hall, conducted by Lorin Maazel.

It’s impossible, and even silly, to rank orchestras as Gramophone did recently. But in London, the Philharmonia would be near the top. Of course its musicians play elsewhere too, but the combination that is the Philharmonia brings out the best.


This performance was proof, if any was needed, just how good this orchestra is. They began with Fauré’s suite from Pelléas et Mélisande. It’s not as radiantly beautiful as Debussy but it has its own character. Maazel didn’t make much of it, but it was just a short overture to the main business of the programme : Maazel’s own Farewells : Symphonic movement op 14.  This replaced, at short notice, his Music for Violin and Orchestra, due to the sudden withdrawal of the soloist Julia Fischer. Maazel is currently touring Europe, conducting several of his concertos. His opera, 1984, was premiered a few years back, so it was interesting to hear his orchestral work.  Farewells is his most recent piece, written in 1999.


Maazel describes the piece as a result of his “worries about nuclear weapons, the ozone layer and machines which produce horrific, if unintended consequences…..”  He aims to contrast the “inhuman crunching of machines” with the “melancholy evocation of the tenderness we can still find within the souls of those not yet desensitized by the din of the present day human arena”.


Cue then for cross currents of noisy mechanical staccato and moments of lyricism. There’s even a huge hammer, sheathed in what looks like leather, which strikes a loud blow. Mahler famously used hammer blows with stunning effect. Here though, the impact was curiously impotent, arising out of no particular sequence, dissolving into inconsequential whimpers. Maybe that was the point, that the hammer should be muffled and the response impotent meandering. But it didn’t come from anywhere and didn’t go far.  More effective were Maazels’s vignettes; smaller sections that repeat the same idea of contrasting themes, trombones and basses, darker winds and celli, flutes and violins.


Farewells is interesting enough, but perhaps it should have been heard on its own terms, not followed by something as original as Sibelius’s Second Symphony. Struggle is very much to the fore in Sibelius. Craggy monumental passages veer up, vivacious lyrical moments break out.  This is still early work, but already you can hear that Sibelius is going somewhere : it’s distinctive and vivid. The spirit of Finlandia lives, and grows deeper. This time, though, there wasn’t much sense of direction.  The notes were carefully articulated, but there wasn’t purposeful flow or engagement. Pedestrian though this performance was, it was worth hearing because it demonstrates the value of a good orchestra. The Philharmonia is so good, it runs smoothly even on idle, like a powerful sports car. 


Salonen’s Sibelius with the Los Angeles Philharmonic was magnificent. What he’ll achieve with the Philharmonia should be a revelation.


Anne Ozorio