London Philharmonic/Marin Alsop

Vaughan Williams; Higdon; Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring

Royal Festival Hall, 15 December 2007 3.5 stars

Marin Alsop If energy alone could guarantee the success of a performance, then Marin Alsop's latest concert with the London Philharmonic Orchestra would have been one of their most enthralling to date. As it was, however, a number of more subtle issues meant that what was an otherwise thrilling evening stopped just short of being superb.

The concert was programmed fascinatingly, beginning with Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and closing with Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Despite the apparent disjunction between these works, their mutual interest in predominantly modal languages and the reconstruction of earlier (and largely imagined) folk idioms was satisfyingly bought out through their juxtaposition. Mediating between these two works lay Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto, whose rich colourings cast the earlier Vaughan Williams in relief, while its driving rhythms clearly owed a great deal to Stravinsky's primitivism.

The Vaughan Williams was pleasant and warm, with Alsop demonstrating that her incredibly physical, involved and almost visceral conducting can elicit a surprising depth of tone from a string orchestra alone. What Vaughan Williams called 'Orchestra II' - a player from each desk - was located upstage left on a riser, while 'Orchestra III' - a string quartet - contained the principals of the first four sections. Some of the most poignant moments of the performance concerned these smaller groups, playing eloquently and wistfully against the sound of their colleagues, and convincingly imitating the sounds of the organ according to Vaughan Williams' specification. Alsop's performance, however, raised an interesting problem. Given her committed and driven conducting style, there seemed to be little room for indulgence, all too often a negative feature of Vaughan Williams performance. However, it was, counter-intuitively, this very lack of indulgence which made some of the work sound drier than we have come to expect. Indeed, other than the lush climaxes, I felt that the orchestra sounded a little thinner than they might, especially towards the top end. Perhaps Vaughan Williams' music needs to be played indulgently after all?

Despite the fact that it was his twenty-third performance of the work, Colin Currie's breathtaking performance of Higdon's Percussion Concerto sounded as fresh and exuberant as though he was only just discovering it. The work has two excellent features. The first is its oscillation between pure concerto form and that of a bastardised concerto grosso, with some of the most colourful, haunting, and simply innovative moments concerning the cross-stage dialogue between the soloist and the percussion section itself. Particularly scintillating was one of the central episodes, whose pointillistic texture was a direct descendent of Webern's better Klangfarbenmelodie. The second exciting feature of the concerto is its incredible range of sonorities, with what is actually only a medium-sized collection of percussion instruments - vibraphone, marimba, drum kit, antique cymbals, and assorted woodblocks, gongs, and so forth - creating a dazzling and never-repeating spectrum of musical sounds. In comparison, the orchestral textures often seemed a little plain, although they too had their moments. The material felt to me more genuine when it was derived from the jazz-influenced Milhaud tradition, rather than the more generically Oriental one. It seems that this is most likely because of the energy and inclination of the work's soloist.

Of the soloist, whose energy and vibrancy as a performer cannot be doubted, one can only say that he remains the most celebrated aspect of the work. From the beautifully poised and breathless opening marimba chords, through airborne cymbal crashes, to the powerful and awe-inspiring rhythmic unisons of the closing measures, Currie remained focussed on a superbly executed and tremendously exciting performance. What also becomes clear during the work is Currie's dedication to the music itself - smiling broadly during his favourite moments, and turning to face the orchestra during his brief tacet in the middle of the piece, the air-percussionists in the interval of the concert were clearly keen to share not just in Currie's musical creation, but his musical spirit, too. I was a little alarmed when I discovered that the entire concerto was in four, and even more so when Currie revealed that in his improvised cadenza he intended to switch momentarily to seven to provide variety. The fact that both of these ploys were a success is a testament to composer and performer: composer because Higdon manages to derive a huge amount of variety from a limited amount of rhythmic means, both through interaction between soloist and orchestra quasi-Beethovenian rhythmic development; and performer because Currie's solo was structured logically and eloquently, with a clear sense of growth and message. Throughout all of this, Alsop and the London Philharmonic were energetic and powerful. The stage, however, clearly belonged to Currie.

Finally, the concert closed with Higdon's ancestor (at least rhythmically speaking), The Rite of Spring. The opening solo was excellent - indeed, perhaps it was made to sound a little too easy, bringing to mind Stravinsky's comment that it could be transposed up a semitone every decade to preserve the sense of strain. The frequency of solo lines in the work means that it is, of course, always going to shine when in the hands of the LPO. However, ensembles too were well-handled, with the morose march which opens Spring Rounds sounding particularly dank and heavy. So too were the climaxes threatening, energetic, and simply horrific, with dissonances screaming from the brass and chords thumping from the strings. Stravinsky, I think, would have been pleased to see a few loose hairs hanging from the bow of the Principal 'Cellist, Kristina Blaumane, as the work closed. Alsop was in control throughout, and her personal involvement in every line was easily apparent and almost exhausting to watch. It seemed that perhaps the less obviously climactic sections of the work could have crackled and spat with more energy; whilst certain passages glowed with the necessary spectral colour - Mystic Circles of Young Girls in Part II, for example - others, like the huge unison melody which closes Spring Rounds, seemed a little lethargic in their articulation. I think sharper tongues and crisper bows could have helped these sections match up to the otherwise excellent rest of the work.

This was a concert full of energy, and a tremendously exciting one for the remarkably varied audience who chose to attend. Currie and Higdon can remain justifiably optimistic about the future of their work following this, its European premiere, while Alsop continues to show in her conducting the kind of involvement with the orchestra and precision with the score which have made her justifiably renowned.

By William Lockhart