LPO/Alsop

12.19.07
Colin Currie
The London Times

Of all unlikely bedfellows for Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis must be near the top of the list. Yet in Marin Alsop's Saturday concert with the London Philharmonic - the Festival Hall's last meaty classical feast before the Christmas decorations take over - we needed this calm before the storm. The LPO strings, honed and polished, hovered in gentle rapture over the Fantasia's modal musings. From that point on, every part of the orchestra let loose with jiggling bedlam.

Stravinsky wasn't single-handedly responsible. Stomping and thrilling sounds also shot out from the American composer Jennifer Higdon. Her Percussion Concerto, from 2005, might not stretch American music far beyond the stereotyped moods of syncopated urban frenzy and the "open sky" harmonies of Copland in repose. But it easily earned its keep as a brilliantly crafted, brilliantly theatrical, display piece for its splendid dedicatee, the British percussion soloist Colin Currie. During Currie's cadenza, nearby violinists daintily covered an ear. Yet nowhere in this 24-minute piece did rhythmic exuberance ever become sheer noise. Progressing from throbbing marimba through clattering woodblocks to a drum kit from hell, Currie always found beauty in precision. Elegance, too.

And, for all its high-decibel effusions, Higdon layered her piece very delicately, with due regard for exploiting orchestral space. Witness the soloist's dialogues with the orchestra's five percussionists - a deliciously subtle dramatic feature. All the composer lacked was a big rabbit to pull out of the hat for the finale. It never arrived. But, given her imaginative skill, Currie's electricity and Alsop's firm grip, more of the same proved good enough.

Swivelling her hips every other second, Alsop kept up the podium dance for Stravinsky's pagan feast. She was too canny a conductor to bludgeon us straight away. This was a Rite that took time to show its teeth. But when they were bared, in the awesome crescendo concluding Part I, in the woodwind shrieks, the scything brass or the blood stomp of the Sacrificial Dance, those teeth were sharp and wicked.