Wednesday 17 March 2010

Mutter/LPO/Morlot - Wagner, Brahms, and Bartók, 17 March 2010

Royal Festival Hall

Wagner – Lohengrin: Prelude to Act One
Brahms – Violin Concerto in D major, op.77
Bartók – Concerto for Orchestra

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Ludovic Morlot (conductor)

This was an attractive programme, but the performances did not really ignite as they might have done, despite Anne-Sophie Mutter’s sterling efforts. The prelude to Act One of Lohengrin creates a problem of coming back to earth in Wagner’s Romantic opera. It is also rather difficult to programme in concert, in terms of what might follow; I am not convinced about it introducing Brahms. In any case, despite some beautiful, ethereal string playing from the London Philharmonic, Ludovic Morlot’s direction remained laboured, over-emphasising the bar lines, so that the requisite upward ascent never quite materialised. The orchestra was on excellent form, never more so than at the moment of full climax, trombones magnificent, but the players could only do so much by themselves. Coughers were especially prominent during the closing bars; clearly the Grail had done them no good.

The first thing that struck me about the Brahms concerto performance was the decisive brilliance of Mutter’s entry. (It is perhaps telling that the orchestral introduction made little impression.) Sweetness and steel were equal parts of her armoury here and throughout. The pin-point precision of her intonation, double-stopping notwithstanding, was awe-inspiringly consistent, and the expressive quality of her vibrato, nicely imitated by the orchestral strings, was equally apparent. However, the orchestra rarely sounded inspired even in this opening movement, and what direction Morlot had provided seemed fully dissipated by the advent of the Adagio. (In between, we had to endure precipitate applause.) And so, although the slow movement’s woodwind solos sounded beautiful in themselves, the context was lacking, especially prior to Mutter’s re-entry. A lack of orchestral focus persisted until the finale, where things picked up somewhat, the LPO sounding reinvigorated. Mutter’s virtuosity was jaw-dropping, likewise her purely musical command. However, it was still very much – sadly, too much – her show. Memories of her magnificent 2008 performance with André Previn and the LSO were certainly not effaced.

The second half was better. Morlot sounded more at home in Bartók and the orchestra sounded focused throughout; perhaps more rehearsal time had been allocated to the Concerto for Orchestra. The strong bass line manifesting itself at the very opening of the first movement proved a good augury and was matched by a greater general sense of direction and a fuller string sound. Again, there was something of a tendency to stress bar lines, but the orchestra by now seemed better practised in evasion. Morlot shaped the climaxes well, though. The second movement brought especially nice work from the various pairs of woodwind instruments: what skilful writing this is! And I was pleasantly surprised by the degree of strangeness to the sonorities with which the Elegia opened. Greater flexibility aided the sense of onward movement. Bartók’s brilliant joke in the fourth movement registered; so did its political and æsthetic edge. Now there are different reasons to wish to send up Shostakovich, not least amongst which are his canonisation by the smug victors of the Cold War and, still closer to home, his consequent ubiquity in the concert hall. Bartók’s derision still demands to be heard. The finale suffered somewhat from an unduly fast main tempo, which necessitated too much of a gear change later on, disrupting continuity. However, the string counterpoint registered clearly. Whilst not, then, an unforgettable performance, there was much to enjoy, especially given the opportunities for the LPO players to shine, just so long as one were not expecting the excitement and fulfilment provided by the likes of Iván Fischer.