Philharmonia and Sinopoli: formidable talents, but poorly matched? Prestigious London orchestra faltering under new conductor

What happens when an orchestra appoints a music director who may be more valuable for the recording contract he brings with him than for his specific talents? If this month's trio of New York concerts by the Philharmonia Orchestra of London is any indication, such an appointment can spell a decline in quality. For the Philharmonia, this is particularly disturbing, given its distinguished history.

The orchestra was founded in 1945 by record producer Walter Legge, primarily as a studio ensemble for EMI/Angel Records. It came into particular prominence in recordings by Herbert von Karajan and Otto Klemperer in the 1950s. The orchestra has had its ups and downs since Legge withdrew in 1964, forcing the group to become a self-governing cooperative known as the New Philharmonia. Currently, its music director is Giuseppe Sinopoli, a doctor in both psychiatry and music who turned maestro and is best known for his opera recordings. He is a star of the Deutsche Grammophon recording catalog, and as such, is a plum conductor for any orchestra that relies on recordings for much of its well-being.

Most of the London orchestras must record to survive. And since the city claims five major orchestras - the Philharmonia, the London Philharmonic, the London Symphony, the Royal Philharmonic, and the BBC Symphony - competition is fierce for those recording contracts. No wonder that the Philharmonia would appoint a conductor with recording successes like Sinopoli's.

This brings us to the three concerts heard on the orchestra's United States tour. Sinopoli is best known as a Mahler conductor these days - DG is recording both Sinopoli and Leonard Bernstein in the complete Mahler symphonies. Yet he offered only one Mahler work on this visit, ``Kindertotenlieder,'' with baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as soloist. The other selections were staunchly mainstream: Bruckner's Eighth Symphony, a Wagner overture, Schumann's Second Symphony, and an all-Brahms program.

All three concerts gave cause for concern. The orchestra is clearly remarkable, but this was discernible only at isolated moments along the way. Sinopoli didn't demand great playing; he seemed oblivious to raw sounds, poor intonation, startling imbalances.

The Bruckner, for instance, became an unbearable concerto for timpani and orchestra, because Sinopoli either allowed the timpanist to thunder away unchecked or actually encouraged such overbearing performing. The Wagner ``Meistersinger'' overture lacked the necessary tension. The lower brass pumped listlessly away while the brighter brass wailed. The strings sounded muddy. And yet, in the adagio of the Schumann symphony, everything came together sumptuously and sensitively, with soaring, melting strings, limpid wind playing, and the sort of guidance from Sinopoli that was encountered only during this movement.

What to make of a Brahms First Symphony that was merely slow and raucous? Or of the conductor's Schumann Second, when Sinopoli's DG recording of the work with the Vienna Philharmonic is provocative, passionate, and impressively played?

Clearly, this is the work of a conductor who hasn't as yet honed the skills to communicate his specific desires to orchestras. Sometimes it works; other times it doesn't.

More problematic is the sense of the free-wheeling experimentation that underlies even the best of Sinopoli's performances - on records, at the Met in Puccini's ``Tosca,'' in many performances with the New York Philharmonic, and now with these Philharmonia concerts. He has the least poetic hands in conducting today. The left hand, which should be indicating phrasing and mood, punches out the beat in mirror image of the right. His beat is just imprecise enough that there were several false entrances in the Brahms Violin Concerto and the Brahms First Symphony.

The major impression left by the three concerts is of an orchestra at sea. It appears to have no idea what to expect from Sinopoli and is on the verge of losing discipline and a sense of orchestral self-worth.

It may be too early to dismiss Sinopoli, and to declare danger for the Philharmonia. But on the basis of these three concerts, there are ample warning signs that improvements are needed.

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