Classical: Highly strung
Maxim Vengerov, Philharmonia/James Levine Royal Festival Hall, SBC, London
Tuesday 16 December 1997
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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