Ax & Previn – LSO (17 June)

Brahms
Variations on a theme of Haydn (St Anthony Chorale), Op.56a
Franck
Variations symphoniques
Elgar
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36

Emanuel Ax (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
André Previn


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 June, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Audiences can make or break concerts. At this one, musically first-rate, one sensed a laissez-faire attitude from some of the public – just enough people making enough noise to be irritating. The bag-rustlers, sweet-wrapper openers, those oblivious to their own unguarded coughs, those that wait for the music to start before reading the programme, and then flick through it casually, or audibly stuff something in a case or bag, and so on, irrespective of a ’best of order’ requirement.

Outside of this was the unfortunate screaming-fit that infiltrated ’Nimrod’ – here nothing could be done except move quickly. Apparently this was Alzheimer’s-related – much sympathy to the person concerned. Might the very specific resonance of ’Nimrod’ have triggered this outburst, as a lateral association?

The concert itself, despite noise-distraction, and ’Nimrod’ aside, which was nobly done and, during the disruption, very professionally manoeuvred-through by orchestra and conductor, was another perfect illustration of André Previn’s total musicianship. What’s been interesting in these three Brahms-related concerts (this was the final one) is Previn’s very expressive use of dynamic contrasts. The ear is never allowed to become complacent, and Previn’s control of volume is always musically enlightening.

Previn’s judicious conducting let this intriguing juxtaposition of three sets of variations flow naturally. The commentaries of Brahms on the St Anthony Chorale (not actually written by Haydn) were tellingly detailed, enough to have a ’concerto for orchestra’ aspect. Previn’s tempo-related ’whole’ view of the music was very satisfying – from warmly undulating horns at the opening to closing ceremonial. Brahms’s autumnal hues were bewitchingly etched.

It’s rare to hear César Franck’s Symphonic Variations these days. It may only last 15 minutes but there’s plenty to enjoy – from strict opening to the piano’s mellifluous first entry through seamless variation-development to moonlit rapture (or so it seemed here) and the sparkling wit of the close. With Emanuel Ax tackling Brahms’s concertos in the first two of these concerts, the Franck was something of an encore. Ax loves this piece and played it thus, and he couldn’t have wished for better support.

The enigma of Elgar’s variations remains the musical theme that the work is supposedly based on: Rule Britannia, Mozart’s ’Prague’ Symphony (was this why Previn included that in the first concert?) and numerous other motifs have been nominated – maybe, though, the ’Original Theme’ is the composer portraying his various friends in music.

It’s also possible to see this work as being darker than supposed, as a less than affectionate depiction of “friends pictured within”. Previn’s urbane account, however, centred on intimacy and subtle portrayal. What ’Troyte’ lacked in physical excitement was compensated for by the measured tempo equating with Arthur Troyte Griffith struggling to play the piano. Equally, Dan the bulldog (Variation XI) was bestowed a gait suitable to the breed. ’Dorabella’ was beautifully done, the merest of stutters, with the slower variations as intrinsic as they were beguiling. The lack of an organ (marked ad lib in the score) for the closing peroration might have disappointed but was in-keeping with Previn’s understated view, one of many ways to distil this ever-fascinating work.

The programme note, as always, stated that the clarinet theme in Variation XIII (’***’), a lost love possibly recalled, is from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, yet I know one distinguished musician who has scoured this section and found not a Mendelssohn quote but rather one from Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Enigma Variations continues to fascinate deerstalker wearers. Previn satisfied finer musical sensibilities – I just wish it could have been listened to under different circumstances.

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