Classical: Highly strung

Maxim Vengerov, Philharmonia/James Levine Royal Festival Hall, SBC, London

Show me a man's cadenza and I'll show you how he plays its parent concerto. In the case of Brahms's Violin Concerto, available options are dominated by Joseph Joachim's inspired pot-pourri (most musical fiddlers play it as a matter of course), but Friday's Royal Festival Hall performance by Maxim Vengerov with the Philharmonia under James Levine witnessed something quite new, a double-stopped extravaganza of the soloist's own making that more suggested bowed fireworks than any special concern for what lies beneath the notes. It burst upon us as the climax of an overwrought first movement where Vengerov took his lead from Levine's powerhouse conducting. Or should I say that Levine had accommodated Vengerov's breathless virtuosity? Whichever the case, repose was in short supply, and so were those those crucial instances of phrasal punctuation that lend depth and perspective to the musical dialogue. Where was the colour, the shading and the expressive subtlety that we know Vengerov is capable of? To be honest, he seemed rather ill at ease. The long opening tutti found him fumbling in his pockets, adjusting his chin-rest and glancing warily towards the rostrum. Once "launched", he'd occasionally rush the bar-line, slip from the note's centre or settle for uncharacteristically mechanical phrasing; and yet the sheer energy of his playing, the brilliance of his left hand and the seemlessness of his bowing were often remarkable. I suspect that a less earnest maestro might have inspired him to greater lyricism.

Levine's conducting was strongest in the finale, where the swift tempo suited the mood and the principal theme donned a rustic lilt, though the Tragic Overture that opened the concert was also fairly impressive, what with its surging string lines, heavily stessed accents and confident grasp of structure. Certainly, there was little suggestion of the impatience, even irritability, that marred the first movement of the Fourth Symphony, where Levine erected an impenetrable wall of sound, pushed the pace, pressed the strings to uncomfortable steeliness and generally bulldozed his way through some of the most equivocal pages in Brahms's orchestral output. What, I wonder, had happened to the acute mind that, earlier in the evening, had shaped the Overture with such intelligence? Even the Andante moderato seemed uncomfortably tense (the lustrous string tune at its centre had an air of desperation about it), and the Scherzo, although energetic, stopped short of exultation. The Passacaglia finale was again swift and unyielding - I'm tempted to say "post-Toscaninian", except that Toscanini himself was invariably more flexible. Orchestral execution fluctuated between good and scrappy, with Andrew Smith's timpani raising a storm from the rear. The concert's close brought courteous acknowledgement of the various instrumental choirs and section leaders, which made Levine's rude treatment of Brahms all the more conspicuous. Like words spoken in anger, it was best forgotten.

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