November 27, 2002
Brahms, Dvorak, Liszt, Janacek
by Alex Russell
Under Kurt Masur's authoritative and assured conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra adapted its style of playing for each of the composers represented in this concert; they produced playing of versatility, magnetism and great musicianship. Increasingly, this is proving the most exciting musical partnership in London.
Brahms' Variations on the St Anthony Chorale was given a 'classical' and noble reading by Masur with Klemperer-like measured tempi. Masur's reading remained largely sombre and subdued until the last variation which seemed suddenly to burst into celebratory life and light. This performance was noteworthy for subtle conducting and chamber-like playing, encouraging the audience to listen to the work afresh.
Mstislav Rostropovich, the veteran cellist and conductor played with all his customary passion but paradoxically lacked presence: almost as if a shroud had been draped over him, the 'cellist a ghost of his former self. Rostropovich's somewhat detached and agile playing seemed veiled and distant, especially in the quieter passages in the Adagio and Finale where his sounds slipped into near-nothingness. Yet, these intimations of mortality seemed to work: Rostropovich's very fragility and sensitivity gave the score a more tragic and vulnerable sound-world.
The opening three minutes of the Allegro was played with such vigour that when the 'cellist made his entry it seemed like an anti-climax. It was Masur's sensitive accompaniment and the powerful playing of the LPO which seemed to submerge Rostropovich into the depths of the orchestra; not so much swamping him as surpassing him in sheer force and style. Under Masur's highly-charged baton this concerto took on a more dramatic feeling than is usually the case, bringing out the darker dissonances in the score, notably the menacing-sounding, punctuating trombones in the Adagio. The often subdued and opaque playing of Rostropovich was so minimalist that it was barely audible yet this somehow created a tension and darkness in the work. One felt that the tremendous applause for Rostropovich was more for a life dedicated to music and past glories rather than this present or (rather absent) performance. A great artist, but alas, a fading star.
Liszt's Les Preludes often sounds crude, bombastic and banal under lesser conductors but thanks to Maestro Masur's refined and tasteful direction this second rate music sounded like a masterpiece. This performance had an extraordinary combination of sauvity and swagger, a kind of devilish grandeur. Only the timpanist seemed out of focus and lacking in the essential attack and incisiveness the score demands in the closing passages.
The Janacek Taras Bulba was played not only with great precision and panache but with a gutteral Czech accent; a deep, grainy, metallic, almost brittle, sound. Here Masur gave a nerve-shattering account of this much underrated score. In The Death of Ostap and The Prophecy and Death of Taras Bulba the LPO violins took on a razor-sharp cutting edge while the trombones had a raucus sound which had great impact. The timpanist seemed to come alive here and had real weight and style, so lacking in Les Preludes. The organ part was played with sombre, brooding intensity in the The Death of Andri, and the coda with timpanist, tubular bells and orchestra ended this great work with exhilarating affirmation. Taras Bulba is one of Janacek's most inspired, inventive and imaginative scores and sadly neglected in the concert halls today. On this occasion, it proved to be the highlight of the evening.
By way of an encore the superb organist Catherine Edwards played the last of the Brahms' Haydn Variations: a performance of great gusto and passion. An evening to remember.