| Usher Hall, Edinburgh
London Symphony Orchestra 01
Edinburgh International Festival
|Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH1 2EA, United Kingdom|
Thursday 16-Aug-12 08:00pm
London Symphony Orchestra 01
Powerhouse conductor Valery Gergiev, the Edinburgh International Festival’s Honorary President, brings the London Symphony Orchestra to the festival for what promises to be a fascinating four-concert residency contrasting the glowing nobility of Brahms with the exotic, perfumed passions of Szymanowski. It was her performance of Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No 1 that won Ayrshire-born violinist Nicola Benedetti the BBC Young Musician title in 2004 at the age of 16, and the Polish composer’s sensuous, mystical music has been in her blood ever since. Sponsored by Shell U.K. Limited Supported by Adam Mickiewicz Institute
Image credit: Decca / Simon Fowler
The current flagship project of the London Symphony Orchestra is to take on tour a series of concerts, under their Principal Conductor, which unite the symphonies and other major works of Brahms and Szymanowski. It is bold and imaginative, while remaining accessible and appealing. Last night's virtual sell-out at the Usher Hall is proof of that, as well as of the popularity of conductor and soloist.
On stage were some of the finest and best-known musicians in London, well able to play virtually anything you put in front of them. It is with some misgivings, therefore, that I comment on the start of the concert, Szymanowski's Symphony No 1. A two movement work, it is all that remains of a grandiose conception that the composer himself withdrew after a single performance in 1909 while still in his twenties. In a nutshell, Szymanowski felt that he had bitten off more than he could chew, and we are left with the two outer movements. The orchestral resources are large, the thematic material complex and the harmonies and scoring dense. This makes for a host of problems in performance, not the least of them being balance. I was not sitting in the cheap seats, but at times I was barely aware that the strings were playing, even though they were clearly giving it their all. There were some rushed and noisy page turns, which could have been accomplished more professionally in the ensuing few bars, which were rests. Was there a whiff of under-rehearsal about the piece? I am sure he is a great conductor, but Gergiev's fluttering fingers and butterfly hands did little to help the strings point their pizzicato in satisfying unison. The audience, too, seemed unmoved by music that clearly deserves closer examination.
Although familiar with various recordings, I have never heard Nicola Benedetti in the flesh. It was the piece that brought her to fame, Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No 1, that concluded the first half. Written during the First World War, the concerto did not receive its première until 1922, appropriately enough in Warsaw, the capital of the new republic of Poland. Although there are three distinct sections, the work is an unbroken whole, punctuated solely by a brief cadenza in the final section.The mystical and spiritual aspects of the composer's nature were instantly recognisable from the start of the work. For once, the hype is surpassed by the reality: Benedetti did not so much play or perform the piece as inhabited it, from the moment of her first serene entrance until the final chords. Her left-hand technique was more than equal to the stretches and challenges of this demanding work. Faultless legato playing floated effortlessly over an orchestral sound that shimmered and complemented her every nuance. It was hard to believe that this was the same team that had started the evening. A slight smile played over the soloist's face after the cadenza: she knew just how well the performance was going and the eventual applause was rapturous. This was music-making of a high order.
The sole work in the second half was Brahms's Symphony No 1 in C minor. Enough has been written to fill a library about the 17-year gestation of this symphony and the complicated emotional life of the composer but the essentials of the piece can be stated simply. It begins in the melodramatic key of C minor with powerful timpani strokes underpinning the orchestral angst. This is followed by an almost poetic andante in E major, from which the leader's solo soars to the final notes. A brief, relaxed third movement leads into a return of the melodrama. This is resolved by the transformation from minor to major and a vision of the sunlit uplands beyond.
As a performance, last night's vision of the symphony was totally convincing. Without a split second's pause, in turning from his bow to the audience, Gergiev brought the entire forces of the orchestra crashing down on our heads. There was menace aplenty in the horns and brass, while the strings produced a deep throaty sound. Careful control of dynamics was observed, with genuine pianissimo when it mattered. In the second movement, the woodwind restored the calm, allowing Roman Simovic to deliver his magical solo without the need to overplay. The clarinet interjections in the third movement brought more smiles until, yet again, the menace returned. The build-up to the principal string theme was tightly controlled, as was the preparation of the chorales each time they appeared. Spine-tingling, swirling strings, thrilling crescendos and a taut rhythm, rather than frenetic tempi, maintained the excitement to the end. The audience's enthusiastic applause was rewarded with a short encore - predictably, a Brahms Hungarian Dance. After all, the end of the evening was more satisfying than the beginning had led me to expect. The series has potential.