There was a real “Summer Festival” feel about London’s Southbank Centre, which was packed from marketplace to top-floor terrace with people who seemed pleasantly surprised at an early taste of the sun. In fact, a festival was in full flow: the Southbank’s celebration of “Women of the World” (WOW). Whilst the Philharmonia Orchestra’s matinée programme, with music by German males Mendelssohn and Beethoven, conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado and featuring pianist Nikolai Lugansky, had no connection with the weekend or its theme, the festival’s acronym was at least a fitting way to sum up the concert, which drew many people into the Royal Festival Hall in spite of the sun.
Beethoven is considered the most masculine of composers, but the music of neither the Egmont Overture Op.84 with which the concert began, nor the beloved Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat Op.73 which followed, is relentlessly muscular or overridingly testosterone-fuelled. Heras-Casado, conducting without a score for the entire concert, created a perfectly balanced texture and drew out the delightful interplay between instruments in the first piece which prevented it from becoming monolithic and solid. The broad-set opening string chords were expertly weighted towards the pizzicato bass end, which created a fabulous resonance that contrasted well with the winding woodwind lines that answer them. The quality of the orchestral sound and their togetherness in these opening few bars was enough to assuage any audience members who might be regretting the sunny outdoors, reminding them what had drawn them there in the first place: the prospect of witnessing the supremacy of this ensemble. The Allegro that followed these impressive opening exchanges seemed to have teeming undercurrents bubbling away beneath its reasonably temperate exterior. A dramatic interior, intimated by the energy with which the orchestra played, brimmed to the surface in the joyous, triumphant coda section. Aside from some unfortunate intonation in the piccolo flourishes, intended to be the icing on the cake, it was an ending that deserved the cheers it received from the crowd.
After a swift platform rearrangement, pianist Nikolai Lugansky heralded his appearance on stage with the fabulous arpeggiated opening of the “Emperor” Concerto. Probably the best-known of Beethoven’s piano concerti, it’s easy to hear why this is also the best loved. The opening movement features not only some spectacular opportunities for startling pianism, but also some truly wonderful orchestral writing, such as the cheeky interaction between pianissimo strings and winds in which the latter seem to tease the former by playing around with the music’s meter. A similar, but more striking effect, was achieved by the piano in a passage of absolutely genius, when Beethoven sets up a cross-rhythm in the high piano register that morphs the music from serious boisterousness to blissful serenity. At times, towards the end of this lengthy movement, I felt there was a slight lack of communication between pianist and conductor, but overall the marriage of performers was a good one, Lugansky never overindulging and maintaining an excellent balance with the orchestra.
The second movement was simply exquisite. Another perfectly weighted bassline was the ideal complement to the beautiful opening string chorale – an Austrian pilgrim hymn, apparently – before the weightless piano melody floated tranquilly over the soft, static chord in the orchestra. The movement ended with a strange, distant fanfare-like motif, played hauntingly by the pianist, which turns out to be a magical pre-echo of the rocketing, romping finale.
The dusky hues of Mendelssohn’s Symphony no. 3 in A minor, Op.56, “Scottish” provided stark contrast with the dazzling brightness that audience members experienced as they topped up on vitamin D during the interval. The first movement began with a brooding viola melody, and Heras-Casado’s scoreless interpretation really showed what a supremely satisfyingly crafted movement it is, full of light and shadow, craggy crevices and open expanses. The Vivace was all freshness and brightness, a cheeky clarinet solo becoming a bounding tutti, underlined and energised by rapidly repeating semiquavers. This wonderful vibrancy relaxed into reassuring calm in the delightful pizzicato accompaniment to the yearning violin melody. Its serenity did not prevail, though, as the music was stirred up into strong, forceful section featuring insistent trumpets and distressed string lines; this anxiety succumbed eventually to a gorgeous Romantic cello rendition of the opening melody. The Finale was far more tempestuous, a Sturm und Drang-style movement, played with a bristling energy even in its quieter moments. From behind the movement’s stormy clouds, however, the sun shone all the brighter, the symphony ending with a coda section as warm and glorious as the Sunday sun on the Southbank Centre's busy, buzzing terraces. Wow!