London Philharmonic Orchestra / Mark Elder / Alice Coote / Paul Nilon - Wigmore Hall, 9 January 2009
What's the point of a conductor? This recital, so tempting on paper, proved that even with a chamber-sized ensemble, a stick-waver is not dispensable.
Thirteen members of the LPO squeezed on to the bijou Wigmore stage and attempted to steer themselves through the tricky waters of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll without a guide, and at a guess, without a lot of rehearsal. There were numerous glaring slips of ensemble. Balance was non-existent, winds massively overweighted. Tempo or dynamics were cautiously unvarying - monotony spared us the otherwise inevitable chaos. The musicians looked relieved just to reach the end. I certainly was.
It was a different story when Mark Elder picked up the baton for Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. There was even less room on the platform now, and musicians spilled out behind through the doorways. But at least they were playing together, more focussed yet paradoxically more relaxed. Even the intonation was for some reason more accurate.
But the Wigmore Hall acoustics are not kind to such massive forces, however closely reined. They treat every instrument and every voice democratically. To a string quartet, it's a miracle that magically makes them sing with one voice. For Paul Nilon and Alice Coote it was a disaster. Despite heroic efforts, they were frequently inaudible, not riding the band, but joining it.
Paul Nilon's ringing tenor was abandoned in every possible sense in the lurching waltz of the opening drinking song. The looped and intertwined instrumental lines sprang out with crystal clarity; the tenor sank slowly to the bottom of the glass.
Alice Coote fared a little better. At least the mezzo is allotted some of the more thinly-orchestrated passages, so she could shine through without force. She brought delicacy and exuberance in turn to Von der Schönheit, and with her unique gift for inhabiting even the silence, caught the disquieting change in atmosphere that occurs at the end of the song - without singing a note. Perhaps you had to be there. Nostalgia and yearning were joined in Der Abschied, her exquisitely poised farewell.
I suspect only age and infirmity prevented the capacity audience from rising to their feet at the end. I haven't heard many ovations that loud or prolonged at the Wigmore for a while. But while you couldn't fault the effort, or dispute the Wigmore audience's sentimental adoration of Coote and Elder (based on a history of solid performances) what this performance really proved is that if the performers don't fit the platform, the sound doesn't fit the hall. Oh, and a conductor is not a luxury.