LPO / Masur, Royal Festival Hall, London
Wednesday 04 February 2004
On the face of it, this looked a standard classical programme of the kind the major London orchestras grind out season after season. Buttressed by the first symphonies of Beethoven and Shostakovich, it centred on a starry line-up of soloists in Beethoven's Triple Concerto, once something of a Cinderella among his concert works but critically revalued and regularly heard these days. The main question, therefore, had to be whether the performers found anything fresh in these familiar scores.
In Beethoven's Symphony No 1, the answer proved to be: not really. Opting for almost 50 strings in this Haydnesque music was hardly helpful to crisp articulation. Yet the London Philharmonic's principal conductor, Kurt Masur, set lively tempos and mugged the music's many quirky turns graphically enough.
If a curiously soggy undertow remained, this could only be because almost all his interpretative attention seemed to be directed towards the higher orchestral instruments, with the bass allowed to trudge along regardless. This was an odd dereliction in Beethoven, of all composers, whose very drive and bounce so often depend on active, well-defined bass lines.
Masur could hardly avoid focusing on the cellos and basses at the outset of the Triple Concerto in C for Violin, Cello and Piano, since they launch it alone. And the difference in clarity and liveliness was immediate - countering at a stroke the implication, in all too many performances, that the score only really comes to the boil in its finale. Whether the trio of eminent soloists were always at one with the relatively straightforward orchestral backing, or in their relations one to another, was another matter.
For some reason, this reading was dominated by Lynn Harrell's piping hot cello. Anne-Sophie Mutter, whose frowning, downcast demeanour so oddly belies her handsome presence, seemed to be playing her tremulous violin more to him than to the audience, while André Previn appeared content to amble loosely through the piano part in the background. There were passing felicities, of course, and a capacity Royal Festival Hall audience gave it all a tremendous reception because, after all, these players are, well, who they are.
But ultimately, it was the 19-year-old Shostakovich's precocious Symphony No 1 in F minor that manifestly engaged Masur most intensely. This was just as well, since the piece can easily seem to split between the edgy grotesquery of the first two movements and the heavier melodrama of its slow movement and finale. But, with a fierce intentness steadily accumulating from the start, the febrile climax of the finale seared the ear.
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