Monday 23 June 2008

Mutter/LSO/Previn, 22 June 2008

Barbican Hall

Mozart - Serenade in G major, KV 525, 'Eine kleine Nachtmusik'
Mozart - Symphony no.39 in E-flat major, KV 543
Brahms - Violin Concerto in D major, Op.77

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
André Previn (conductor)

This was a wonderful concert. The LSO sounded on better Mozartian form than I have heard it for a long time, certainly more so than under Bernard Haitink earlier this month and arguably even than under Sir Colin Davis at the beginning of this season. As if this were not enough to surprise me, I was also surprised by the fact that, reduced to chamber-size, with a smaller body of strings than under Haitink or Davis, it boasted a fuller and arguably more cultured sound. André Previn has long been a fine conductor of Mozart and Haydn, although rarely if ever has he been duly acknowledged as such. (Present-day mania for the 'authenticke' does not help.) Although I am perhaps more difficult to impress in Mozart's music than in that of any other composer, I was certainly impressed here. Mozart does not, one might say, require many things, only perfection; he certainly leaves nowhere to hide. Eine kleine Nachtmusik received no condescension, such as the musical nouveaux riches might accord it. Instead, it was given a straightforward, yet charmingly attentive account. No 'points' were being made; rather, a delightful example of Mozart's serenade style was played with grace, affection, and a beguiling sense of the Salzburg the composer had left behind. The warmth of the LSO's string section erased memories of that slight acid, which, somewhat surprisingly, had affected it under Haitink. Previn showed how the second movement could gracefully flow without being subjected to the perverse fast speeds of so many contemporary, modish performances. Likewise, the minuet can - and should - be taken three-to-a-bar, without any sense of dragging; this simply requires musicianship. The final movement was taken relatively slowly, yet it never seemed too slow and we were thereby permitted to savour the true Mozartian grace.

Similar virtues characterised the great E-flat major symphony, for which the strings were of course joined by woodwind, brass, and kettledrums. The surprise of the performance was that hard sticks were used for the latter. I should have preferred this not to have been the case; however, they were not used in the typical aggressive, exhibitionistic style of the 'authenticists' and this was my sole cavil. The relatively small number of strings had no trouble in sounding almost as warm in bloom as their Viennese counterparts, whilst the woodwind led us into a veritable garden of sonorous delights, especially during the third movement's trio. Tempi throughout were expertly judged; there was little in the way of rubato, but there did not need to be. Sterner moments, for instance the extraordinary minor-mode outbursts in the slow movement, were given their due, yet remained integrated into the whole; likewise, the strong, measured introduction to the first movement, whose unerring sense of direction governed the entire movement, indeed the entire symphony. Again, Previn did not seem out to make points, to present 'his' interpretation; yet, at the same time, this did not indicate a lack of imagination, merely a willingness to let this miraculous score speak (more or less) for itself.

Anne-Sophie Mutter was on exceptional form for the Brahms concerto. There could be no doubting the virtuosity and musicianship of her response to that violin concerto which I am tempted to describe as the greatest of all. Her tone was without fail expertly modulated to the requirements of the score, without this precluding great excitement. Moreover, she was -audibly and visibly - able and willing to engage in chamber music with the orchestra's principals when required. The same must be said for her dialogue with the conductor and orchestra as a whole. Mutter and Previn must have performed the concerto a good many times together and it showed; however, this appeared to inspire rather than to suggest any sense of routine. The lengthy phrases and paragraphs of the first movement were expertly handled, with an unerring sense of their place in the greater whole. Previn showed that there is absolutely no need to rush and, indeed, every reason not to do so, so long as one knows what one is doing. Needless to say, the cadenza was flawlessly despatched. In the second movement, there was an interesting impression of a Schumannesque intermezzo, suggesting delicacy, intimacy, and repose rather than the more typically weighty response to the score. Both approaches, it seems to me, can work, but I was fascinated to hear a somewhat lighter reading that worked rather than skimming over the musical surface. I had been about to claim that the gypsy fireworks of the finale were electric - although never in a shallow, merely virtuosic sense - when I realised that some metaphors were better left unmixed. The give and take between Mutter and the orchestral strings was often breathtaking, whilst all musicians' sense of the movement's harmonic progression ensured that Brahms's unerring sense of form won through. May we hear her - and Previn - in London again soon!