The London Symphony Orchestra is celebrating the centenary of its first American appearance with a pair of Brahms programs under Valery Gergiev. The orchestra was originally booked to travel on the maiden journey of the Titanic, but a delay in the doomed ship’s voyage and the need to keep to the schedule averted catastrophe for the orchestra. However, modern means of trans-Atlantic crossings did the LSO musicians no favors, as they sounded lethargic and uninspired in this opening concert at Lincoln Center.
Brahms’s companion piece to his Academic Festival Overture was nearly called ‘Dramatic’ instead of Tragic’. In this performance, the latter title was much more appropriate, as the dreary rendering lacked any sense of drama. The plodding tempo and lack of fluidity in phrasing was tiring, and the poor blending of ensemble – in particular, the harsh brass – plagued the orchestra throughout the evening.
The conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow once remarked that Brahms’s Violin Concerto was written not for but against the violin. Fortunately nobody told that to James Ehnes, who played the solo part with remarkable technical ease. His intonation was consistently superb, and the bright tone he coaxed from his ‘Marsick’ Stradivarius was distinctive, but his interpretation of this often-heard piece was unoriginal, incorporating the standard amounts of rubato
. His realization was most appealing in the more dramatic moments, such as the triple-stopped passages in the first movement. Ehnes modified his tone to become slightly sweeter in the Adagio without any loss of intensity. The LSO’s strings did not match his clarity of articulation in the finale, but the orchestra did manage to incorporate some of his energy.
Gergiev began the Second Symphony with a brisk tempo, yet he soon lost the momentum and the rendering became workday and uninspired. The balance problems often obscured the work’s inherent lyricism, with melodies becoming lost in the murky acoustic. The Adagio’s exceedingly slow tempo was lugubrious, with the strings sounding smooth but dull in their lack of shaping. Principal oboist Emanuel Abbühl’s third movement solo was light and lovingly phrased; a highpoint of the evening. The finale marked a return to heaviness, alleviated only by a final burst of liveliness in the coda.