Ruy Blas Overture, Op.95
Violin Concerto in D minor
Symphony No.4 in A, Op.90 (Italian)
Alina Ibragimova (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Barbican Hall, London
Sunday, March 23, 2014
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Though the programme listed a fairly large body of strings, a fewer numbers of players walked on as part of an ensemble that might have been described as the ‘LSO chamber orchestra’. The violinists and violists were then made to remain standing for a clearly projected, dramatic account of the Ruy Blas Overture. After this they were provided with chairs for Schumann’s Violin Concerto. Were these manoeuvres concerned with a desire to conform to supposed and separate historical accuracy, or was sitting down for the concerto a more practical consideration – that if the players remained standing they would rather dwarf Alina Ibragimova? It all seemed rather absurd and a meaningless distraction.
Probably Schumann’s Violin Concerto (without-opus-number) will never lose its baggage of being written by a composer said to be in decline, then rejected by Joachim, for whom it was composed, and buried for 80 years before being resurrected following a spirit message claimed to be from Schumann ‘on the other side’. If only we could listen to the work without this knowledge it might be fairly judged as having some longueurs maybe, but also some rewardingly delightful invention and a charm and strength that is typical of its composer. Alina Ibragimova’s tone is not large, but she played very sweetly, with impeccable technique and evident sympathy. John Eliot Gardiner kept textures clear and let plenty of air into the sometimes insistent rhythms.
It was standing room only again for the ‘Italian’ Symphony. Conductors often feel the need to charge ahead in Mendelssohn’s music in a way that they wouldn’t, for example, in Schubert’s early symphonies. Though Gardiner introduced some nice touches into the opening Allegro (its exposition repeated), the composer’s natural openhearted warmth was sternly suppressed by a fast tempo and generally harsh phrasing, the hard-stick timpani strokes emphasising a militaristic approach. In the Andante con moto second-movement the pilgrims depicted within were made to march at a very smart pace, and the third, conducted one-in-a-bar by Gardiner, was again hurried. Predictably, Gardiner made the finale, a ‘Saltarello’, into a hectic display of virtuosity, admirably realised by the LSO as a whole and the flutes in particular. In some ways it was an exhilarating performance, but mostly rather heartless.