A strong, richly romantic performance of the ‘Overture’ to “Tannhäuser”, with a string sound the equivalent of clotted cream, made a positive and exciting start to this LSO concert with Andris Nelsons.
Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto is a lighter work than its predecessor, but it is still has much to commend it – especially a bittersweet lyricism. Viktoria Mullova studied with Leonid Kogan and took first prize at the 1980 International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition, in Helsinki, and the Gold Medal at the International Tchaikovsky Competition two years later. However, it was her high profile defection to the west, in 1983, which brought her into the consciousness of the wider public. Although we heard a well played-account of Prokofiev’s Second Concerto, Mullova seemed uninterested in the music, merely touching the surface of the piece. The lyrical moments were held back and the rapid passagework was workmanlike and lacking in sparkle. Nelsons, though, delivered a full-bodied account of the orchestral part and seemed, too often, to be at-odds with the soloist.
Nelsons’s interpretation of Shostakovich 5 was a personal one but, in general, it worked to the advantage of the music. Starting quickly, with the call to arms, the tempo was then kept slow as drama and tension built towards the grotesque march that is the first movement’s middle section. The recapitulation and coda were very well done, for Nelsons allowed time for the music to really speak. There was one odd moment when the members of the cello section got out of sync with one another and there was a feeling of the edifice collapsing, but just as quickly as it happened the error was rectified. I wonder just how much of Nelsons’s choreography was to blame for this.
The scherzo was vicious and straightforward and the slow movement as heartfelt as it was possible to be, with every ounce of emotion rung from the notes. Shostakovich constructed the finale in such a way that the tempo increases little by little to the big climax; most conductors ignore the composer’s directions and launch into the music in a reckless manner. Nelsons was no exception and, although thrilling, the sense of manic conflict, so carefully built into the music, was lost, in favour of a helter-skelter approach. The end was of the revisionist kind with a slow processional, of great weight, upholding Shostakovich‘s words from “Testimony” – “The rejoicing is forced, created under a threat… It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying ‘Your business is rejoicing’...”. As an interpretation it worked, and worked well, but it wasn’t what the composer ordered! The members of the LSO played like men and women possessed and it was their vital contribution which really made this the event it was.