Ax & Previn – LSO (12 June)

Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83

Emanuel Ax (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
André Previn

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 12 June, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

A rapturously received concert. However, although it was undoubtedly good, it was so only in parts. The performance of Also sprach Zarathustra had many virtues. Curiously, the famous ’Sunrise’ opening was the least convincing – partly due to what I still find a constricted acoustic (despite the fairly recent refurbishment), and to some less than spectacular playing from the trumpets. Thereafter things improved with some sensitive detailing and superlatively ample string-sound: a depth of tone on a par with any of the great continental orchestras.

Zarathustra can sometimes be an over-inflated series of loosely connected episodes. The twin virtues of Previn’s interpretation was that it was constantly moving forward in the most naturally and unfussy of ways, and also that it avoided any hint of pretentiousness – no mean feat in music that can easily veer between bombast and kitsch. Previn’s conducting was a model of restrained clarity, yet with no lack of commitment, nor any sense of holding back at key moments. As a result the 35-minute span passed quickly, culminating in a beautifully stylish and understated ’Tanzlied’ from the orchestra’s Leader, Gordan Nikolitch. Only the odd insecurity in the brass, the less than perfect chording of the winds at the very close and insensitive timpani playing (of which more later) prevented this being as exceptional as Tod und Verklärung from a few days previously.

Great things were hoped for of the Brahms concerto. Ax is a truly fine Brahmsian – one recalls previous remarkable performances of both concertos in London with Sanderling and Dohnányi. Previn is currently on top form: reinvigorated, lucid and engaged. The LSO is a crack band. What went wrong? To plagiarise Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, this was an extreme case of “Unnatural Exuberance”.

Instead of simply giving us Brahms straight and allowing the tensions inherent in the music to build naturally, this performance started loud and got louder. It was as if all participants were determined to give us Brahms on the grandest possible scale. Although the B flat concerto is written on a largest of canvasses, it is also chamber music writ large – that it happens to be big in linear terms is not an invitation to treat it, as happened here, as a battle royal between soloist and orchestra.

From the hectoring realisation of the first tutti – timpani thundering (as throughout), horns blasting – it was as if all concerned had collectively abandoned any sense of style and dynamic judgement in favour of that peculiar type of instant all-purpose euphoria that used to pass for a genuine Brahms sound. In response to this febrile atmosphere, Ax’s became over-aggressive. Although there were moments of repose and sensitivity, the first two movements came across as wildly over-heated. Occasionally Ax’s magical playing could be heard – the sotto voce double octaves in the Scherzo or in the perfectly timed pause which followed. The effect was dissipated though by the ’più agitato’ conclusion which simply got faster rather than more agitated.

In the slow movement the tempo flowed a little too easily. The cello soloist (Tim Hugh) – condemned by Previn’s seating of the strings (with the violas outside-right) to be more or less invisible to both soloist and audience alike – played his solo fluently enough but with little sense of inward magic. Towards the movement’s close, the pianist’s lead-back to the cello, always a litmus test, had less sense than usual of time held in suspension – prose rather than poetry. The Finale fared better; even so it was short on geniality and playfulness, somewhat muscle-bound. A disappointment given the stature of the artists involved.

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