Prokofiev
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100
Walton
Viola Concerto
Strauss
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche

Yuri Bashmet (viola)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Kurt Masur
In spite of its popularity and the impact it undoubtedly has, Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony (programmed first this evening) seems to me something of a problematic work. It is so obviously trying to be a grand and important symphonic statement and yet some of the best moments – for example, the third movement’s ’big tune’ – stem so clearly from Prokofiev in ballet mode.
Be that as it may, Masur made a convincing case for the piece, heightening its strengths yet not always being able to cover over the weaknesses. There was a purposeful start to the work, with good dialogue between woodwind and strings in the opening paragraphs (curiously reminiscent of Copland in ’open-air’ mode) and the various shifts of mood captured well. If the initial tempo was a bit on the fast side for the marked ’Andante’, then this prevented any possible lapse into over-sentimentality – a fatal trap in this work. The main body of the movement was characterised by strong rhythmic playing and powerful brass outbursts. Indeed there was a sense of barely concealed menace towards the end, which offset a too plush approach earlier on. It was as if Masur was acknowledging Prokofiev’s debt to Tchaikovsky rather too readily. A more lean and hungry sound would have prevented this.
The ’Scherzo’ began quite heavily but woodwind solos were perky and pointed. There was more than a hint of the grotesque brought out here and later with malevolent sounds from the tuba. In the trio-like episode, the lyrical string passages (with more than an unaccountable hint of Gershwin) were caressingly brought out whilst a feeling of alarm and frenzy asserted itself in the coda. The initially lyrical third movement brought much needed repose and serenity, although quieter strings would have made their lines even more expressive and poignant. The transition to the heavier march-like section was well handled and the music moved towards its climax with a quite menacing tread. This made the return to the opening mood all the more affecting.
The ’Finale’ can seem something of a letdown after what has preceded it, but Masur did his best to dampen down the skittish qualities and bring out an inherent sense of struggle. The opening recollections of themes from earlier movements was given with a nice touch of irony and Prokofiev’s pointed rhythms received their due and the imaginative scoring made its full effect. Climaxes were again strong, and the music was driven along to a breathless conclusion.
The performance of Walton’s Viola Concerto seemed uneasy for much of the time, as if conductor and soloist were unsure of the other’s approach. Perhaps there was limited rehearsal time, but whatever the reasons, Bashmet was intent on giving an introspective reading, whilst Masur seemed to be seeking something more incisive. There were also problems of balance with Bashmet struggling to be heard at times. The opening was lyrical enough, although as the music became more animated, much of the soloist’s figuration did not register. Masur certainly emphasised the dark-hued nature of the sonority, whilst Bashmet evoked the bittersweet quality of the coda.
The second movement fairly fizzed along, with colourful flecks of woodwind and biting brass. There was a quite exhilarating dancing quality, and verve and energy aplenty, but Bashmet was again unable to articulate in such a way as to project his lines as forcefully as required. Masur brought out the sparkling quality of the third movement and it was as the work was winding towards its conclusion, with its echoes of the opening, that Bashmet seemed to come into his own. Here the wistful, almost regretful quality registered fully and the serene yet sad ending was quite affecting. An odd performance, then, not without its moments of insight, yet unsatisfying as a whole.
There were no problems at all with Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, which bubbled with character. This Till was a mischievous and impertinent imp, and leering clarinets and braying brass emphasised the point. Masur ensured that the work was not as episodic as it is sometimes made – each section followed on naturally. There was an inexorable sense of building towards a climax, and when that arrived (with rolling drums and baleful brass intoning the death sentence on our prankster) it was heavy and formidable. We also felt regret that fate had caught up with Till, and the brief return to the strings’ opening phrase following Till’s death was very touching. The high spirits were soon resumed, however, and the piece was swiftly brought to a breathless conclusion.
Masur and the LPO evidently enjoy working with one another and it was good to see this partnership continuing to flourish at the start of the new season.

 

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