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Bartlett, LPO, Bihlmaier, RFH review - a clear path through the storm | reviews, news & interviews

Bartlett, LPO, Bihlmaier, RFH review - a clear path through the storm

Bartlett, LPO, Bihlmaier, RFH review - a clear path through the storm

Impressive control and empathy from a conductor making her debut with this orchestra

Elegance and rigour: Anja BihlmaierNikolaj Lund

Tempest-tossed seas seem all too apt a theme for January, so it felt fitting that the LPO decided to begin Saturday evening with Wagner’s stirringly elemental overture to The Flying Dutchman. As the programme note fascinatingly reminded us, he composed the work shortly after a turbulent voyage from Riga to London with his wife and their Newfoundland dog Minna, an early and terrifying exposure to the sea that would provide rich creative fodder.

Just a few months after conducting her first Prom, German conductor Anja Bihlmaier took the helm in her debut with the LPO. Right from the horns’ stormy opening statement, it was clear that the ship was never going to overturn as she oversaw the ebb and flow of the piece’s emotions with both rigour and empathy.

One moment she made us feel as if we were at the heart of the tempest, the next she had created absolute stillness so that the sweet lyricism of the cor anglais – representing the woman desired by the Dutchman – rang out across the auditorium. Then, accompanied by a swell of drums, the Dutchman’s leitmotif sounded again, taking us out into the full roar of the eternal, unforgiving ocean. Bihlmaier let the music breathe so we could appreciate every detail – the woodwind passages, as crisp and bracing as the foam on white horses, the immaculate violins evoking the swirl of the current with giddying arpeggios. Following the brief serenity of the woodwind and harp interlude – once more the still sweet voice of calm – a cascade of sound whirled us to the resonant finale.

A much smaller version of the LPO took us on the journey through Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, a very different piece to The Flying Dutchman Overture, but one similarly beset by stormy sentiment. D minor is a significant key for Mozart – it anchors both Don Giovanni and his Requiem – yet here it’s a distinctive choice since of his 27 piano concertos only two were written in a minor key. Martin James BartlettMartin James Bartlett (pictured above by Paul Marc Mitchell) first blazed into the public imagination as winner of Young Musician of the Year in 2014; ten years later, at the age of 27, he has a string of plaudits for recordings of composers including Prokofiev and Rameau. Here his warm expressiveness, paired with astonishing articulacy brought out all the light and shade in a concerto that was rapturously received from its first performance in 1785.

Bihlmaier ushered in a brisk pace for the Allegro first movement – the agitation suggesting autumn winds rather than full meteorological upheaval. When Bartlett played the opening passage, he instantly cut a contrast with the orchestra’s dark, stern emotions, gently unravelling the theme as if it were a brightly coloured skein of silk. There was an engaging elasticity to his style – from the way his body curved towards the piano to the free almost improvisational style he brought to the tricky arpeggiated passages. This is a rare occasion on which I write as someone who – in what feels like another universe – performed the same concerto; watching him scale its technical challenges with superlative ease while bringing out its full emotional complexity was frankly like watching another, superior, species.

In the second Romanze movement, he brought a gilded serenity to the tone that made it feel like watching a stately boat being rowed down a river. Then in the more agitated second half, he threw himself with relish into the helter skelter emotions, displaying a muscular, shimmering brilliance. In the final Rondo movement – which according to legend was still being written down by Mozart’s copyists as he headed into the concert hall – he wrestled happily with its finger-tripping intricacies. The more complex a passage, it seemed, the more silvery elegance was deployed in its execution.

For his encore, he played a rapturously beautiful version of the opening number, "Of Foreign Lands and People", in Schumann’s Kinderszenen, bringing out all the inner voicings that animate the charm of this deceptively simple piece. Then, following a short interval, we were on to the centrepiece of the evening, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, once more with the full orchestra.

Bilhmaier’s impressive management of different musical weather systems bodes well for future voyagesThis is another work that, like the Mozart concerto, opened to rave reviews – apparently, in early performances, the second Allegretto movement was frequently interrupted by bursts of applause. It was written during the Napoleonic wars two years before Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, and its first performance was at a charity concert for Austro-Bavarian soldiers wounded in one of Napoleon’s final victories at the Battle of Hanau.

Michael Tilson Thomas has written about the “vaguely equestrian feel” of the opening Allegro movement, and in the LPO’s elegantly forceful interpretation it was possible to imagine the soldiers’ horses at full gallop. After the beguiling simplicity of the opening flute solo the atmosphere was one of ecstasy and joy, though thanks to Bihlmaier’s tight control this never tipped over into delirium.

In the second, A minor, movement, the orchestra created a deftly judged balance between the rhythmic and harmonic tensions. While the possibility is for it to become funereal, here it was more meditative – a sense of someone simply listening to their heartbeat – the emotions gently building to a sense of optimism. Then in the third Presto movement we were off at the gallop again, with a sense of flags fully unfurled as Bilhmaier almost danced on the podium. The fourth Allegro con brio movement conveyed the full furious joy of a country that hoped, but hardly dared to believe, that their oppressor’s powers were waning and victory was in sight.

It was an evening of crowd-pleasing pieces, but – not least thanks to Bartlett – there was a still a sense of the complex interplay of light and shade that experience. Sometimes it felt as if the emotional palette could be broader, but Bilhmaier’s impressive management of different musical weather systems bodes well for future voyages.

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