Gergely Madaras made his London Philharmonic Orchestra debut on Saturday evening, bringing an all Tchaikovsky programme down to the south coast. The LPO season is a well-supported part of Brighton’s musical calendar, and the Dome was almost full. But the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra are also venturing out of their traditional Sunday afternoon slot into the Saturday night zone, bringing more adventurous programming with them. If the BPO can sell out with a programme of Glass, Rautavaara and John Luther Adams, then it would be nice to see the LPO bringing some more interesting repertoire to the party too. In this season, they’ve brought south four concerts of solidly Romantic and traditional fare, with just one short contemporary work (and the only work composed by a woman). 

Gergely Madaras
© Marco Borggreve

Tonight it was core repertoire, however. So how to avoid a sense of routine? In Tchaikovsky, the extremes of emotion, dynamics and textures are there to be used, but tonight, it took a while for Madaras and the LPO to take full advantage of this range.

They began with the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, a work essentially contrasting a passionate expression of love with the warring Montagues and Capulets, complete with sword-fighting and violent clashes. Madaras and the LPO gave a sound reading, with tight ensemble and precision throughout, as well as moments of delicacy from muted violins and smooth woodwind textures. But greater edge and urgency was needed in the string accents and surges, and the passionate explosion of the consummating love theme lacked ecstasy, giving us a Romeo and Juliet within a somewhat narrowed bandwidth.

The Rococo Variations are a calmer affair, although not without moments of high expression. American cellist Zlatomir Fung performed with an openness and delicate simplicity, whilst delivering the not inconsiderable virtuosic demands with a lightness of touch throughout. Rapid octaves, rising trills, racing spiccato and expeditions beyond the fingerboard were all confidently assured, and the cadenza, with some beautifully placed pizzicato chords, was understated yet engaging. Soloist and orchestra took a moment to agree the pace for the finish, but once quickly settled, they gave the conclusion an impressive swing.

It was in the Fifth Symphony, however, that Madaras and the LPO finally rose above the routine. From the start, Madaras exploited a much broader range of dynamics, with surging strings following on from the sombre woodwind opening, and a blistering climax before the movement gallops off into the dark, bass-register distance. Tchaikovsky is certainly fond of repeating ideas, and greater energy in places would have lifted the material beyond straightforward repetition. Rising out of the low strings darkness, the second movement’s great horn tune emerged with smooth confidence (from principal Annemarie Federle), and Madaras controlled the dynamic of the string accompaniment, allowing the solo, and the oboe countermelody when it arrived, to soar. 

In the Waltz, Madaras’ passion finally emerged, with strong shaping and direction giving bounce and energy to the offbeat rhythms, and strong dexterity from the bassoon (John McDougall) negotiating the perky intervals of his solo. By the finale, it felt like Madaras and the LPO were fully settled in, with rushing string waves, fateful brass calls and the woodwind once again nimble and precise. Madaras controlled the balance, keeping the rushing strings at bay to allow woodwind statements to come through, and then allowed the orchestra to blossom, with shimmering strings and powerful brass, for the majestic conclusion.