Arts: Classical: A very brave New World

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The Independent Culture
THE AMERICAN conductor Leon Botstein has earned himself something of a reputation for rescuing worthy lesser masters from relative obscurity (Joachim, Dohnnyi, Hartmann and others), but Friday's LPO concert found him pulling out the stops for one of the repertory's best-loved works.

Not long ago, Botstein suggested to me that the celebrated "Largo" second movement from Dvorak's New World Symphony may well be a musical narrative based on the theme of Hiawatha, and there was a discernible story-telling element in Friday's performance. The first movement (with repeat) was passionate, propulsive and rhythmically tight, with excellent woodwinds and impressive teamwork from the LPO strings. The scherzo was daringly fast and, for once, the perky little clarinet counter-melody that spices the first theme was clearly audible. Horns and trombones rang resplendent in the finale (though the trumpets were rather weak) and the heroic return of the symphony's first theme that crowns the closing pages was played fully up to speed.

The rest of the concert was more variable. Wagner's serene Lohengrin Prelude came first, and it was pleasing to hear the veil of darkening orchestration fall from high strings through woodwinds to lower strings and brass, like daylight transforming to dusk and back again. But while Botstein had charted - and shaped - the Dvorak virtually to perfection, his tempo for Wagner was too slow.

The concert's central attraction was Khachaturian's tuneful, garish and musically banal Violin Concerto, in which the soloist was the Orchestra's accomplished leader, Joakim Svenheden. My guess is that Svenheden is well acquainted with David Oistrakh's records of the piece, especially in the sultry slow movement, where the velvet tone and artful phrasing were warmingly reminiscent of the Russian master.

The first movement's second idea was also beautifully played, but the resolute opening seemed laboured, and some of Svenheden's passagework later on, although commendably brilliant, failed to project above the orchestra.

Botstein's conducting was at its best at the start of the finale, but elsewhere the score's hyperactive inner parts - most notably among the woodwinds - sounded muddled. Still, it was a valiant display by Svenheden. As to Botstein, it would be nice to see him inaugurate a London-based festival, each year specialising in an individual composer. I'm told that Schoenberg is next on the agenda.