The debate about the refurbished Festival Hall is rapidly fining itself down to a single question: is the new acoustic merely good or very good? For a 56-year-old building about which there had long been serious acoustical doubts, that’s already a mighty improvement, and this London Philharmonic programme certainly showed it off. Given that it was the LPO’s first public concert there since the reopening, it seemed on paper an unostentatious programme – a Schnittke preamble, a Mozart piano concerto, a Prokofiev symphony – but that judgment was to underestimate the hall, the music and the orchestra.
The link between Schnittke and Mozart was Austria, which the Russian composer visited in his youth: in (K)ein Sommernachtstraum he idealises it in a musical theme, which he then filters through his own polystylistic imagination. It alternatively charms and disconcerts – Schnittke is really toying with our expectations – but its function here was to show how cleverly manipulated the music is, and what impact it can make when dispatched as confidently as this.
The Mozart concerto was the D minor K.466, in a performance that suggested the LPO and Vladimir Jurowski, its principal conductor-elect, did not waste their two-year exile in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The orchestra is listening to itself better (an impression marvellously confirmed after the interval in Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony). The new acoustic gives the piano ample presence, though its impact here was subdued: Imogen Cooper showed such respect for the music’s proportions and such polite concern for its fluency that Mozart began to sound predictable. A little temperament can be useful, as Cooper demonstrated in her handling of Alfred Brendel’s mercurial first-movement cadenza.
The Prokofiev is not a work I have much enthusiasm for, but in Jurowski’s hands it came across as extremely powerful and subtle – and as much a concerto for concert hall as a symphony. In the opening statement the very floor seemed to resonate. Jurowski drew the first-movement threads into a thrilling climax, and his flexible phrasing of second-movement motifs showed the same insight. The LPO and he are on a high-definition wavelength. As the “new” Festival Hall unravels its charms, this is the partnership with the most potential.