Peter Grimes – Four Sea Interludes
Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.99
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)
Sarah Chang (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
Barbican Hall, London
Thursday, February 23, 2012
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This LSO concert fielded three composers whose sensibilities seemed to be constantly cross-referencing each other, in a programme that laid bare their preoccupation with the anguish of isolation. In ’Dawn’ from Britten’s Sea Interludes, Valery Gergiev exposed the elemental, uncaring force that heaves and threatens, oblivious to a score that becomes saturated in light, with uncanny precision. The Suffolk coast has never sounded so sumptuously bleak and impersonal, and the LSO astonished us with the clarity and detail of Britten’s troubled purpose in Peter Grimes – in just a few minutes, the audience was hearing through a glass darkly. The perfectly synchronised, tight bowing in ’Sunday Morning’ was controlling and worthy, but it was a barely adequate defence against the ‘Storm’ to come. Once again, Britten amazed us with his directness and inexhaustible originality. Gergiev’s acute aural perception uncoiled the music, and the step from Grimes to the Shostakovich Violin Concerto was a natural progression.
Sarah Chang has made this concerto her own; but what became unnervingly, sometimes distressingly, clear from this performance was the extent to which she possesses and is possessed by it. Her range of tone and expression was miraculous enough, the demonic velocity of the ‘Burlesque’ finale sizzled with adrenaline overload, but it was Chang’s relationship with the music that was so compelling. Whether she was pirouetting crazily above the orchestra in the ‘Scherzo’, where she really went for it, or a ghostly presence in the opening ‘Nocturne’ and third-movement ‘Passacaglia’, she had the work’s complex personality and spirituality to her fingertips. The clinching factor that made this such a memorable performance was the way in which she delivered herself into the black hole of the ‘Cadenza’, to get trapped in its hysterical, lonely virtuosity, and then, seemingly by a mere fluke, finding a way out into the finale. Chang was, quite simply, sensational.
Gergiev seems to have abandoned even the toothpick that he used to hold in his right hand, and to see his conducting in action in the Tchaikovsky again made you wonder how he achieves such a degree of ensemble and expression. His convulsively fluttering hands seem barely related to any beat, and you’re not quite sure whether his shaping of line and phrase is reacting to or anticipating the notes. Sometimes he looks as though he’s operating a theremin, in the way that he conjures up the notes. The LSO is clearly used to each quivering nuance and somehow realised, via some fairly assertive downbeats from the first violins, a scorcher of a performance. The main tempos of the first movement didn’t compete with each other for attention, although Gergiev underplayed the impact of the moment of cataclysm, Tchaikovsky’s greatest achievement; the three-legged waltz of the second movement was fluid and precise, and folded in an undercurrent of febrile distraction; and the finale sighed it way impressively into silence.