Having lived in Chicago for the last 13 years until the end of August I have become used to the accomplishments and character of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I was at so many concerts conducted by its series of leaders - Barenboim, Haitink, Boulez, and recently Muti. And the range of guests was a catalogue of many of the leading conductors of the day including of course our old English friends Mark Elder and Andrew Davis as well as, but only too rarely, Lorin Maazel.
The remarkable CSO has very special characteristics - it somehow satisfactorily combines the warmth of a European orchestra with the the brilliance, even brashness, of an American orchestra. I guess their famous brass in the thing! So I was delighted yesterday evening, after this long term exposure to the CSO, to meet up again with England's most "European" orchestra - the Philharmonia.
The Philharmonia was founded by Walter Legge, legendary and autocratic producer of the EMI classical catalogue in its heyday. This was the orchestra that Karajan and Klemperer became so associated with in its early days. But it was not just a recording orchestra. Their concerts at the Royal Festival Hall in the 1950s and 1960s were the most cherished occasions. They often followed weeks of preparation in the recording studio and this produced performances of a perfection which was rare then and almost unheard of now. I was fortunate to be at just the right age to enjoy them.
Following Klemperer the artistic leaders of the orchestra were Maazel, Sinopoli, Muti, Dohnanyi, and now Esa-Pekka Salonen. An impressive line up! So it was good to time travel back to the Maazel days (circa 1972). He is here in London for two concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, one in Bristol, and one in Athens, of all places. It is good to know that Greece still has some food delivered for their souls - in the form of Tchaikovsky (6) and Brahms (2).
Last night's concert illustrated so clearly the distinction between the CSO and a great European orchestra. And of course it is the brass which makes the obvious difference. The warm and noble sound of the Philhamonia's trombones and horns, and the roundness of the trumpets, is such a contrast. And its characteristics fitted perfectly with the Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky program chosen for last night. Vadim Repin played Prokofiev's 2nd violin concerto in perfect partnership with a conductor himself a fine violinist. And Maazel's legendary wrist and stick, and eagle eye and ear, produced a stunning performance of the Pathetique. The audience erupted - prematurely, as happens sometimes, after the 3rd movement. But their enthusiasm at the end was in no way diminished after the magically controlled ending of the symphony.
I am having a quiet Sunday making lists - Christmas is coming!