Classical: Ring in the changes

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The Independent Culture
ROYAL CONCERTGEBOUW ORCHESTRA ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL

LONDON

JOSHUA BELL'S stylish presentation of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday night, set me wondering about the level of influence conductors can have on soloists. Here was a player who, in other performing contexts, had always struck me as immensely able but musically bland: outgoing, laid- back and with a select but relatively limited roster of individual interpretative ideas. Under Chailly, however, Bell inflected the musical line and varied his tone, his vibrato and his phrasing with a degree of imagination that reminded me of Gidon Kremer or Thomas Zehetmair.

Take the opening movement's song-like second idea. Bell's first statement was chaste, pure and silver-toned; but when the same music reappeared towards the end of the movement, its contours were warmed by a handful of expressive slides. And in the finale, after the trumpets' initial call to arms (superbly played, by the way), Bell flicked his response with the lightest touch, an approach that he maintained for more or less the entire movement. Only the cadenza passages found him pushing his tone a little too hard, and occasionally straying from the note's centre.

Otherwise, it was a revealing rethink of a delightful score that too often finds even its most devoted interpreters on autopilot. Chailly and his orchestra were consistently attentive to instrumental detail, with the Royal Concertgebouw woodwinds chattering blithely among themselves (most effectively in the outer movements) and some delicious string sonorities elsewhere.

In Mahler's Fifth Symphony, too, the orchestra displayed impressive soloistic finesse. Having a superb lead trumpet in the opening of the first movement is a little like enjoying the skills of a quality chauffeur on a difficult journey: so many players skid helplessly on the opening notes, but Thursday's presentation rang out without the least suggestion of discomfort. Moments of repose were also handled with particular care. There is a tender string melody that emerges near the close of the first movement and reappears flushed with passion at the climax of the second, and the orchestra marked a maximum of contrast between the two. Then, in the second movement, a desolate passage for cellos over a quiet timpani roll found Chailly holding the line with almost unbearable tension.

Mahler's scherzo has always struck me as overlong, its landler-like trio section resembling a sad troupe of clowns that comes round once too often, and when the conductor piles on the charm - as Chailly did - the effect can be cloying. But the ubiquitous Adagietto was heart-rending and the busily fugal finale threw caution to the winds. Again, the strings surpassed themselves, and the coda was suitably heroic. No wonder the audience went wild.

Of the three major orchestras most closely associated with Mahler (the other two are the Vienna and the New York Philharmonic), the Concertgebouw is surely the most sympathetic to the composer's cause, certainly under the baton of its current maestro. Long may the alliance flourish.

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