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All three finalists had a go at the overture to Cosí fan tutte followed by a substantial orchestral challenge from the cusp-of or into the twentieth century. Actually, the Mozart proved challenge enough. It didn't sort the men from the boys because, in this business, hovering around thirty years of age, they are all boys. They were all astonishingly score-bound for such a brief and familiar work. Peter Biloen, struggling to look relaxed (understandably enough), had a very precise beat and, blessedly, avoided having his left arm mirror his right the whole time. There wasn't much in the way of variety of dynamics, though, and this fizziest of curtain raisers remained the putative anthem of the Flat Earth Society. Claus Efland acknowledged that he had hips as well as hands and, by leaning into the orchestra and swaying productively, elicited sharper rhythmic tension in the Allegro. Fabien Gabel knew something more of what eighteenth century grace is and, with some circular one-in-a bar beating, allowed the orchestra more flexibility to charm. This was a performance that moved some way in the direction of drawing-out rather than locking-in and suffocating the music's wit.

Fabien Gabel, winner of the 2004 Donatella Flick Conducting Competition, in action. Photo © Chris Christodoulou
Fabien Gabel, winner of the 2004 Donatella Flick Conducting Competition, in action. Photo © Chris Christodoulou

The choice of major work was decided by lot after the semi-finals. Always a tough one, that. What if you detest refulgent Strauss and have a lifetime commitment to Shostakovitch and then, wouldn't you just know it ...? I wasn't persuaded, on the strength of his performance, that Peter Biloen is a man in a hurry to share his insights into Strauss' Death & Transfiguration. The LSO is, of course, one of the greatest orchestras in the world and they have their self-respect in spades. Nothing was ever going to be awful but this sounded like a very decent, but dutiful, run-through. It would be absurd to have expected a repeat of the emotional intensity of hearing them play this work under Abbado but there wasn't much to raise it above a near-anonymous experience. There was a finely delineated lightness of bow on strings in the faltering heartbeats and animation in the explosion into the doomed resistance to the tug of mortality. But the beating was too tight, rubato too limited and convincing ecstasy in very short supply. The essential challenge of this piece is to avoid the bombastic. Here there was a lot of padding and little substance. The orchestra didn't look too chuffed with the result.

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Copyright © 20 November 2004 David Wilkins, Eastbourne UK


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