LSO / Lorin Maazel, Barbican London

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The Independent Culture

Since his first emergence as a prodigy back in the 1950s, Lorin Maazel has established himself as a somewhat uncanny necromancer among conductors, while invariably delivering performances of glittering technical proficiency and vividness. Whether these have always transcended a certain narcissistic coldness is another matter. One would not, in any case, have readily associated him with the warmth and inwardness of Schubert and Bruckner.

Since his first emergence as a prodigy back in the 1950s, Lorin Maazel has established himself as a somewhat uncanny necromancer among conductors, while invariably delivering performances of glittering technical proficiency and vividness. Whether these have always transcended a certain narcissistic coldness is another matter. One would not, in any case, have readily associated him with the warmth and inwardness of Schubert and Bruckner.

Yet here he was conducting both, in what was to have been the opening of a complete symphonic cycle of these two composers with the London Symphony Orchestra, had the task of completing his opera of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four for Covent Garden not become more urgent. For better or worse, however, this single concert gave a pretty unequivocal indication of what Maazel's approach to the whole series would have been.

As the LSO at full strength crammed itself on to the Barbican stage, it was already evident that Schubert's Symphony No 8 in B minor, the "Unfinished", was going to be massive. And so the first movement proved: darkly sonorous, at times grindingly slow, and of vast, dynamic range - more Wagnerian than anything Schubert can have imagined, though this astonishingly forward-looking music can take it. As if in recompense, Maazel launched the ineffable Andante at an almost insouciant moderato march tempo, only to allow it to linger more as the movement lengthened.

But it was in Bruckner's Symphony No 8 in C minor that Maazel's tendency to demarcate each thematic group, sometimes every musical gesture, with an emphatic upbeat and a rounding-off rallentando proved a liability. There is, of course, a weighty tradition of approaching Bruckner in this way - think of Jochum and Von Karajan - but it must never wholly lose its sense of a forward-moving pulse. Indeed, under the alternative no-nonsense tradition of such conductors as Van Beinum and Haitink, the Eighth can emerge as a taut, directional structure.

Maazel's opening movement, though slowish and not without pullings-about, was impressive enough. The galumphing scherzo seemed to interest him less, moderately paced yet failing to dance. But it was the slow movement that proved the real casualty, with the dynamics ever more insistent, the tempos ever more halting as Bruckner reconnoitres his various routes to the summit. The climax itself, with every note of its decorative five-point turn hammered out like a pile-driver, was grotesquely over the top.

After this, not even the most brilliant projection of the mosaic finale's teeming subsections could rescue the conception. One says this with regret, for rarely have the LSO strings sounded more wondrously weighty, or its brass more radiantly heroic, and, conducting from memory with commanding clarity, Maazel was absolutely on top of the music. It was just that he seemed so rarely inside it.

To be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 22 December

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