Philharmonia Orchestra/Muti/Lupu - Royal Festival Hall, 2 December 2007
Maestro Riccardo Muti is so popular round these parts that he got as much applause at the start of this concert as most ordinary mortals would at the end. Well, it was a special occasion -- the 35th anniversary of his first performance with the Philharmonia in fact.
Reprised from that first concert, and with a nod to the recent reopening of the Royal Festival Hall, the starter was appropriately enough Beethoven's Consecration of the House Overture. Not quite Beethoven's finest moment, but the Philharmonia gave it a sprightly and attentive run through, Muti extracting a light but disciplined sound.
It's impressive - and mysterious - how Muti continues year after year to resemble an only-recently retired footballer. A great haircut and plenty of vegetables perhaps? Radu Lupu, who joined the orchestra for Schumann's Piano Concerto, is amazingly four years younger than Muti, though his wispy silver hair and lush beard lend him a far more venerable appearance.
I was glad to be seated close to the stage for this evening. Lupu snuggled up to the keyboard and treated the barn-like Royal Festival Hall to a performance that would have been equally at home in the most intimate of salons, orchestra notwithstanding. I don't know how well this travelled to the balcony. But from where I sat, his gentle touch and delicate shading brought a reflective, autumnal quality to the work. The few moments of volume or virtuosity truly dazzled in contrast.
Lupu is not a pianist who bludgeons the listener with his talents -- he simply radiates his serene empathy with the music and allows us to share in the glow. Such a shame that his London appearances these days are so scarce. The toned down orchestra tiptoed around him with a contained grace that revealed all the subtleties of the scoring.
Another repeat from Muti's very first Philharmonia concert was Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Ravel's orchestration spreads the spotlight around the whole orchestra like a multi-part concerto, and the tremendous discipline of the Philharmonia's playing ensured there were no weak links, with particularly fine playing from the horn and trumpet soloists. It was a well-drilled account, lacking a degree of spontaneity perhaps, but immaculately balanced. Muti whipped up plenty of energy and a few moments of real fire, but ended the evening as he'd begun it - not a bead of sweat, not a hair out of place.
The Royal Festival Hall at chucking out time:
Lupu plays from Beethoven's 32 Variations in C minor in Italy, not long ago I'd guess. Despite the not so great sound and picture quality, this is a marvellous portrait of his technique at work: