Seeger
Andante for Strings
Berg
Violin Concerto
Shostakovich
Symphony No.15

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas
On the evidence of a short movement for strings, Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-53) was an extraordinarily gifted woman. I had heard her name but not, sadly, her music until now.
Here was a composer working in the early part of the last century, anticipating by some thirty years some of the sounds of the mid-1960s. Her career was cut short by marriage to the musicologist Charles Seeger, whom she assisted in the collecting and classification of folk-song, but she returned to original composition shortly before her untimely death. The Andante is an arrangement made in 1938 of a movement from an earlier string quartet. A mere description sounds perfunctory and does the music no justice. Dense chords – actually more like clusters – gradually rise in pitch and volume, reach a climax, and then descend to the nothingness from whence they came. All the while, however, a melody seems to be striving to make itself heard – threading its way through the instruments to no avail. The changes of sonority and texture were quite mesmerising and it is astonishing to think that Seeger was experimenting with music in this way decades before Ligeti and Penderecki.
Berg’s Violin Concerto – subtitled ’to the memory of an angel’ – was the last work that Berg completed. Because of its memorial nature (to the 18-year-old Manon Gropius, Alma Mahler’s daughter by her second marriage) there is a sorrowful and valedictory air about the piece for much of the time. In other places, the music is vigorous and, in the outbursts in the second part, quite violent. The concerto can take a variety of approaches. It can be seen as a fusion of romanticism and expressionism, with one or other of these aspects emphasised, or it can be more rigorously delivered, reflecting the strict application of the Schoenbergian twelve-note technique which Berg employs.
I found this performance too soft-grained. Yes, there is delicacy and reflection in the violin writing and in the chamber-like interplay which the soloist has with the orchestra – the woodwind in particular – but there should also be ardour, passion and defiance, and I found these qualities lacking. It should be said that Mutter played superbly – the formidable requirements of the solo part encompassed with consummate ease – but a stronger feeling of struggle would not have gone amiss. Tilson Thomas seemed to be in sympathy with this approach, and he evoked some effective colourings from the orchestra and ensured that the various strands of the music were made clear. The end of the work, with its quotation from and variations on a Bach chorale, had the requisite poignancy, yet this can be all the more affecting if it emerges from a greater sense of pain and conflict.
If the term ’enigmatic’ were ever deserved, it is certainly merited for Shostakovich’s final symphony. What do all these quotations signify? We have William Tell in the first movement, phrases from Wagner’s Ring and Tristan in the ’Finale’, and fragments from Shostakovich himself throughout. We shall probably never know – in spite of the best efforts of many commentators who have attempted to search out (or invent) a subtext for this strange work.
Whatever the case, the four movements could not be more contrasted. The first is seemingly playful, with chiming glockenspiel and perky piccolo to launch proceedings. The second is solemn, with chorale-like phrases alternating with the sparest of textures, solo instruments to the fore (with an especially taxing solo for the cello – superbly played here), building to a frightening climax only to dissolve into a skittish scherzo. The ’Finale’ begins with a quotation of Wagner’s ’fate’ motive on brass whilst timpani tap out the rhythm of Siegfried’s funeral music. The phrase from Tristan leads immediately into a frivolous violin melody, then an intense climax before the symphony concludes with whirring, clicking and tinkling percussion, which sounds as if a clock has become demented.
Intriguingly, Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto (to be played alongside a repeat performance of the symphony on Saturday, 16 November), ends in a similar manner. All these multifarious changes of mood were well realised by Tilson Thomas and the LSO. The exposed solo writing was confidently and expressively played and the work had a symphonic coherence about it, which it doesn’t always receive. Some conductors prefer a ’picture postcard’ approach. Tilson Thomas does not – much to the music’s benefit.

 

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