Fresh from two concerts at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, the LSO was here clearly at its very peak, playing with trademark combination of raw power, focussed aggression – and finesse. Valery Gergiev’s leadership can be infuriatingly erratic and lacking in subtlety. However, with one exception (largely beyond his control) this concert was a potent reminder that he is very much a force to be reckoned with. The evening opened with a poised account of Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake and ended with the magnificently played Shostakovich – as fine as anything I have yet heard him do.
To get the exception out the way. Anne-Sophie Mutter wrote in the programme that she hadn’t played Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto “for ages”. That’s the way it came across. This scrappy self-indulgent performance had little to recommend it, every emotion milked and her violin sound at times unbearably harsh. On the plus side, the opening of the ‘Canzonetta’, initially without vibrato, had an unusually veiled quality and the finale exploded out the traps like a hare pursued by greyhounds. To quote Mutter again: “I shall be putting my foot down on the pedal in the last movement – so watch out.”
What a transformation the interval wrought. Wolfgang Rihm’s Lichtes Spiel (Light Play or alternatively a pun on ‘child’s play’) is an 18-minute piece commissioned by Mutter to stand at the centre of a series of Mozart concerto concerts. There is a difference between ‘light’ and ‘lightweight’; although scored for a Mozart-sized orchestra there is nothing ‘lightweight’ about Rihm’s work – which inhabits the landscape of Berg’s Violin Concerto – any more than there is about Mozart’s final piano concerto whose placid surface conceals rarely-plumbed depths.
Mutter played it in tune with its idiom (and also literally), languor and intensity held in perfect equilibrium. The surprise ending was perfectly timed.
Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony received its first performance under Evgeny Mravinsky in 1939. Perhaps its unusual proportions – a Largo first movement lasting longer than the two successive movements combined – or it being sandwiched between the Fifth and ‘Leningrad’ symphonies have militated against its full acceptance. This performance was utterly special, Gergiev having the courage to adopt a really expansive tempo for the first movement, which lasted all of 19 minutes (several minutes longer than some performances). Slow maybe but wonderfully sustained as well as inward, patient and understated – none of them words usually associated with this conductor. All the woodwind principals covered themselves in glory; and if the extended flute deserves special mention it is because seldom has the kinship with Mahler’s ‘Abschied’ (Das Lied von der Erde) been more clearly delineated. The central movement was cannily paced, fast enough for its sense of a vertiginous characteristic – it resembles a kind of nightmarish chase – whilst allowing for its full vicious ‘slap across the face’ quality. The breathless finale (Rossini on speed) had sly humour – another quality not normally associated with Gergiev – as well as rambunctious slapstick.