Friday, 1 October 2010

Mullova/LSO/Nelsons - Wagner, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich, 30 September 2010

Barbican Hall

Wagner – Overture: Tannhäuser
Prokofiev – Violin Concerto no.2 in G minor, op.63
Shostakovich – Symphony no.5 in D minor, op.47

Viktoria Mullova (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons (conductor)

My hopes were doubtless too high following Andris Nelsons’s stunning CBSO Prom this summer. Neither Nelsons nor the LSO disappointed, but that goes to show that there is more to a concert than the performance of conductor and orchestra.

Following an exceptionally fine Rienzi Overture at the Proms, Nelsons conducted that to Tannhäuser: alas, Dresden, rather than Paris. (The good news, slightly deferred, is that the Royal Opera will at long last be performing Tannhäuser in December, and in the Paris version too.) Nevertheless, the performance greatly impressed. I do not think I have heard the opening pilgrims’ chords sound quite so redolent of Classical Harmoniemusik: apt and convincing. The string choir response proved equally magical. Nelsons, through a strong rhythmic command of the score, imparted a true sense of the processional. Sharply etched rhythms and colours came to the fore in the (foreshortened) Venusberg Music, but there was teasing rubato too. It was all too clear, in the typology of Wagner’s soon to be written Opera and Drama, that here was a woman begging to yield. A delectably feminine duet between the two front desk first violinists, Sarah Nemtanu and Carmine Lauri, was equally evocative, if more perfumed. The final peroration had something of Liszt to it; the bombast – this was a concert performance, after all – recalled his organ transcription, as if re-transcribed for orchestra.

A little bombast or at least commitment would have been dearly welcome in Viktoria Mullova’s rendition of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto. Unfortunately, she played it as if she did not believe in a single note of it. The nervous intensity to her opening phrases was intriguing, if largely undone by less than perfect intonation. It was immediately clear that the first movement was to take its cue from the Allegro of Prokofiev’s Allegro moderato marking, though there was considerable, arguably excessive, slowing for the second subject. Before long, however, there were too many instances of soloist and orchestra not being quite together – and sometimes rather more that. Throughout, I missed the more lavish tone that many violinists have brought to the work. One does not have to be Heifetz to play it, but it certainly does no harm. I had the sense that Mullova was shying away from Prokofiev’s Romanticism, but she was less cool than casual, the movement’s ending merely throwaway. Soloist and conductor seemed of very different minds regarding the slow movement. One seemed to wish to get it over with as quickly as possible, whilst the other pulled back and did his best to love Prokofiev’s woodwind detail. The abiding impression was that Mullova would have been happier performing with her recent regular collaborator, Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Her approach was perhaps a little more suited, or less unsuited, to the finale, which at least observed the marcato of the Allegro marcato marking. Nelsons clearly relished Prokofiev’s grotesqueries where he could, though the advent of castanets made me wish all the more that they had been employed in the later version of Wagner’s overture. Tempo changes, however, sounded arbitrary, and once again Mullova experienced tuning problems: possibly a by-product of her recent work on period instruments? A lacklustre performance from the soloist, then, who made this potentially magical work seem merely trivial.

The second half was devoted to Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. I tried, but, as with almost every work of Shostakovich’s, the more I hear it, the less there seems to be to it. (Symphonic exceptions for me would be his first and last symphonies, both of which intrigue in a manner not wholly dissimilar from Prokofiev.) Performances, however, could hardly be faulted. On surer ground, having despatched an unsympathetic soloist, Nelsons could unleash the full power of the LSO; we immediately heard attack, depth, and a truly frozen landscape with which to open the first movement. There was here and throughout a cinematic quality to the performance, the poster-paint approach bringing Shostakovich closer to Prokofiev than to Mahler, which is just as well, since the former comparison is a little less of a hostage to fortune. The piano was unusually prominent upon its entry, almost concertante in quality: a bit odd, but no harm done. Shostakovich’s raucous march music evoked a goose step newsreel; orchestral unisons proved fearsome in their sonic intensity. The scherzo played up Mahler’s influence, though this brought home just how much cruder Shostakovich is. Stalin was too, apologists will doubtless claim, but that seems to miss the artistic point. Yes, there are marionettes, as in Mahler, and Nelsons characterised them with aplomb, but they are marionettes on steroids – and steroids which seem to have done them irreparable harm. Again, quite reasonably, there was a vivid sense of cinema imparted to proceedings. The slow movement sounded beautiful in a vacant sort of way, which seems to be its point. It overstayed its welcome, one might say, but then again that length seems to be the point too. A Soviet-tinted Vaughan Williams seems to be the desired effect, if hardly the explicit intention, and this is what one heard. As for the finale, it was as brutal as anyone might reasonably have hoped for. Nelsons sensibly did not overburden it with ‘interpretation’, though the climax was not unreasonably of the browbeaten school. Shostakovich, whatever his failings, did not deserve Solomon Volkov, but reference nowadays seems unavoidable. The brass section was simply tremendous; indeed, the whole orchestra was. But was it all worth it?