Arts: Over the top, in your face

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The Independent Culture
A CENTURY on, Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony still retains the power to devastate. Wednesday night's Barbican performance by the London Symphony Orchestra under Lorin Maazel concluded with an account of the slow finale that was so heartfelt, so relentlessly intense, that when the last notes sounded and the bass players finally rested their bows, it was a full half-minute before anyone dared to applaud.

The earlier movements had been played with a maddening combination of technical brilliance and interpretative idiosyncrasy that, over the years, has become Maazel's trademark. Nobody could have wished for a more viscerally exciting March-scherzo, but why ham things up by broadening the pace for the last lap? Tchaikovsky asks for the second movement's sighing central trio to be played "sweetly but mournfully", and yet Maazel's account breezed from one section to the next without so much as a raised eyebrow.

The first movement opened without ceremony, then came to the boil for a ferocious development, rapturously prepared by Andrew Marriner's descending clarinet line. Occasionally, I felt that Maazel was pushing his players just a little too far; and yet, viewed overall, the performance worked wonderfully well. As "second halves" go, it was one hell of a concert.

But then there was the first half, where Maazel played solo violin and the Bavarian-born Wolfgang Gieron took the baton. Bartok came first, his lovely First Portrait, though Maazel strayed rather too far from the note's centre and Gieron pushed the tempo too hard for the big climax. The piece first sprang to life as the opening movement of a fully fledged Violin Concerto, and that was how Maazel played it.

The "Portrait" idea came later, and works only if tailed by the brief but bitter variation that makes up the second Portrait, which wasn't performed at Wednesday's concert.

It is often said - indeed often proved - that composers can make excellent conductors, but whether the opposite is true is open to some debate. Maazel's versicoloured Music for Violin and Orchestra is a kind of performable encyclopaedia of 20th-century musical gestures which, on Wednesday's showing, sounded unsubtle, excessively discursive, over-long and wearingly hyperactive, a sort of "Alban Berg meets Franz Waxman". The solo line defies current fashion by employing the violin in a gratuitously virtuoso role, and Maazel's blatantly over-the-top playing fitted the bill perfectly. His are the interpretative manners of an earlier age, with sentimental slides, lashings of vibrato and an almost confrontational degree of emotional engagement. Quite refreshing, I thought, though his overblown, even rather sinister, orchestration of Fritz Kreisler's wistful Gypsy Caprice had all the charm of Bela Lugosi perched on a Gothic pulpit.

Just a couple of hours earlier, while driving into the Barbican Centre, I heard a Radio 3 In Tune broadcast of Maazel playing the same piece, but with its original piano accompaniment - a far more palatable experience.

Rob Cowan