Philharmonia/Riccardo Muti, Radu Lupu (piano)

Schumann: Piano Concerto; Mussorgsky, orch. Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition

Royal Festival Hall, 2 December 2007 4.5 stars


The then 31-year old conductor Riccardo Muti made his debut with the New Philharmonia orchestra on 2 December 1972. The programme included Beethoven's Overture The Consecration of the House, Brahms' Second Piano Concerto and Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

The concert resulted in the appointment of Muti as the orchestra's Principal Conductor. As the story goes, Muti was offered the prestigious job between the rehearsal and the concert on that day. Eventually he accepted and stayed in the post from February 1973 until he resigned in 1982. Later the relationship continued through Muti's work as the Philharmonia's Conductor Laureate and then - more recently - as an Honorary Member of the Orchestra.

To celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Philharmonia-Muti partnership, the orchestra presented two works from the original programme and again a piano concerto - although by Schumann, not by Brahms. The almost identical programme begs the question: how many of the players from thirty-five years ago are still part of the orchestra? I am only guessing the answer which is, nevertheless, most probably 'none'. Bearing in mind that orchestral players - as well as conductors - can grow with the job over the years, this is an uncomfortable thought.

Without a score in hand, it was hard to tell whether Muti's driving forward in The Consecration of the House was a result of Beethoven's markings or of Muti's artistic temperament. There was fluency and an impressive dynamic range in the performance but I was longing for more breathing space between some of the phrases. Arguably, Muti's impressive drive occasionally compromised rhythmic strength.

Muti was a wonderful accompanist to Radu Lupu in Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54. He seems to have allowed Lupu full musical control which in turn created astonishing musical poetry within the humblest interpretation of the composer's instructions. Lupu treats all markings within context: accents and sforzandi in melodic sections are more directional than literally dynamic. On the other hand, directions - whether up or down - are interpreted with a whole range of dynamics. Lupu's virtuoso passages resemble beautiful pearls in well-ordered formations. It is almost astonishing how the piano - a percussive instrument - can sing under his hands.


The Philharmonia's wind section was magnificently responsive to Lupu's extra-ordinary musicality. In the first movement, a short exchange of a two-bar motive between pianist and solo oboe was chamber music at its best, and so was the solo clarinet's rendering of the theme-fragment over the solo piano's sensitive arpeggios. The woodwind's presentation of the eight-bar main theme was spellbinding: they fully adjusted to Lupu's lyricism, as did the cello section with the rendering of their eight-bar solo motive in the second movement. Poetry was present in the final movement too, but so was humour and weight.

Nevertheless, Lupu does not superimpose on the piano. In other words, he does not beat the hell out of it as so many pianists do. It is of note that Lupu does not conduct, does not lecture on world affairs, does not seek pop-star status. He serves music - and all of us music lovers - with humility. Long may he continue.

Although Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition serves as a wonderful orchestral show-piece and can be very exciting, I confess that I much prefer Mussorgsky's original solo piano piece. The Philharmonia gave as virtuoso a performance as possible. In the second piece (The Old Castle), the beautifully played saxophone solo almost convinced me of Ravel's merit. Flute and oboe players distinguished themselves in the third piece (Tuilleries), while the tuba player delighted in the fourth piece (Bydlo). Praise is due to the trumpets for their difficult but well played solos in the sixth piece (Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle). Whenever I attend Philharmonia concerts, I never cease to be amazed about their percussion section. Surely they must be among the world's best?

My own preference would be a slightly less rushed interpretation of the purely orchestral works on the programme. But the performance of the Schumann piano concerto was so exceptional that this will remain as a red-letter day in my memory.

By Agnes Kory

Read recent concert reviews, including Nikolaj Znaider's performance of Korngold's Violin Concerto with the LPO, here.