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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Sounding better on the south Bank

By Norman Lebrecht / May 30, 2007

The strongest sign of recommitment at the reopening Royal Festival Hall is an expanded classical music programme, and a revitalised one. Set aside the limelight events of the season, such as Daniel Barenboim’s cycle of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas and the centennial survey of the works of Olivier Messiaen. What is clear from the new brochure is that the resident orchestras have been challenged to pull up their socks above the humdrum line.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) will be stepping boldly outside its designated period to present Schumann’s seldom-heard oratorio Paradise and the Peri, under Simon Rattle’s baton. The Philharmonia introduces three of the hottest young conductors, Stephane Deneve, Tughan Sokhiev and the ascendant Slovak Juraj Valcuha. Bravest of all, the LPO is semi-staging Erich Korngold’s densely-scored Wunder der Heliane, a lush opera unaffordable on opera-house budgets and never previously heard in London. These are significant advances from the Elgar-and-two-veg diet of former years and the newness of the hall is bound to attract a large audience even for esoteric repertoire.

On first hearing, at an OAE rehearsal yesterday, I can vouch that Larry Kierkegaard’s acoustic refit has made huge improvements, thanks mostly to the installation of wooden floors, the removal of dead carpet, the straightening of the hall’s flanks and the installation of overhead stage canopies. Just how good the RFH will sound with a big band and full house remains to be tested, but the muddiness that once reduced orchestras to mush is gone, along with patchy sound dissemination and the ineluctable smell of stale spag bol. With a £7.5 million boost to programme budgets coming from the outside lane of shops and cafes, the South Bank has reduced its dependence on Arts Council box-tickers and taken a leap into the unfamiliar. It is not just the building that is being opened, but a few minds as well.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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