The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s first 2015 concert in Brighton promised much and young Scottish conductor Rory Macdonald, in his debut with the orchestra, largely delivered.  Macdonald already has a number of years under his belt as assistant to Iván Fischer and then Sir Mark Elder, as well as working with Sir Antonio Pappano at the Royal Opera House. However, this was a mixed concert, sadly let down by a disappointing concerto performance. Yet fine orchestral playing and an intelligent performance in particular of Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony saved the evening. 

Rory Macdonald © Benjamin Ealovega
Rory Macdonald
© Benjamin Ealovega

Humperdinck’s Prelude to Hänsel und Gretel was given a warm performance to open the concert, with much promise for the evening ahead. Macdonald showed solid command and shaped the succession of tunes well, with a lively build to the elaborate Wagnerian counterpoint climax. The horn section produced a suitably rich tone, and were completely secure in the opening “Evening Hymn”, no mean feat for a concert opening. 

Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in F minor was in fact written shortly before his First, but was published second, hence the numbering. As a virtuoso concerto, there is relatively little for the orchestra to do beyond supporting the soloist, although they do get a lengthy exposition in the first movement before the piano enters. Greek pianist Lambis Vassiliadis was a new name for me. He has recordings of Poulenc, Szymanowski, Schumann and Brahms, amongst others, to his name, and is Professor of Piano at the Ionian University on Corfu. In the programme notes, his style is described as “explosive pianism”, and explosive indeed it was, unfortunately to the extent of being somewhat overly aggressive for Chopin. The risk of such a wild approach to live performance is that accuracy can also suffer, and sadly that was often the case here. In the opening movement, Vassliadis’ rubato was extreme to the point of almost derailing the orchestra, and Macdonald had to work very hard to help the players stay on track.

In the beautifully lyrical slow movement, Vassiladis’ rather harsh tone was given no assistance from the dry acoustic in the Brighton Dome, and there was little subtlety of emotion here. The finale is an enjoyable concoction, with folk influence in the mazurka rhythms and the sprightly col legno (with the bow wood) string accompaniment. Here Vassiliadis’ approach was better suited, and the concerto came to a spirited, if again not entirely accurate, conclusion.

After brief applause, Vassiliadis returned to perform Liszt’s mammoth Reminiscences de Norma, a challenging listen at the best of times.  Of course there were no problems of ensemble with the orchestra, but even here, there was a feeling of imminent danger, bringing the first half of the concert to a slightly unsettling conclusion. 

There was a palpable sense of relaxation when the orchestra returned after the interval to perform Dvořák’s wonderful Symphony no. 8 in G major. Suffering somewhat from the overexposure of its successor, the “New World”, the Eighth is not as frequently performed as it deserves. Macdonald gave a beautiful dynamic shape to the cello melody in the first movement, and the rustic Adagio which follows had great character. He also managed to point to the pain beneath the seemingly pastoral surface here. Despite a slightly untidy pickup for the return of the first section in the Scherzo, Macdonald and the players gave both sections’ haunting chromaticisms tasteful expression. It seemed as if Macdonald wanted the orchestra to go at a faster pace than they were willing to in the theme and first variation of the finale, but thereafter, they followed his command, and his control of the rapid coda was finely judged. Overall, this was a strong and arresting performance, receiving a deservedly warm reception from the Brighton audience.