Last Works – LSO/MTT (7 November)

Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op.6
Violin Concerto
Symphony No.10 – Adagio
Theme and Variations, Op.43b

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 7 November, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This was a shrewdly planned programme, and maybe the most demanding of the LSO’s “Last Works” series.

From the imitation Bach chorale on which Schoenberg fashions a quixotic set of variations, via the Bach quote (“It is enough”) in Berg’s concerto, to the valediction of Mahler’s Adagio and the upheaval of Berg’s Op.6, this was an absorbing concert of links, references and ambiguity.

Schoenberg, by the time of the Second War, was in Los Angeles. Pragmatism found him rescinding his 12-note technique. Theme and Variations (for either wind band or orchestra) is fundamentally conservative with echoes of the more radical side of the composer. For an incident-packed 12 minutes, certainly in this excellent performance, Schoenberg’s over- and sometimes odd-scoring is in contrast to his classical and imaginative commentaries. The ’new world’ optimism and ’homely’ key of the ending raises a smile to complete a fascinating cornerstone of Schoenberg’s output.

When it comes to orchestration, and maybe Schoenberg had more humour than we give him credit for, Berg completely outclasses his teacher. Indeed, to hear the subtlety of colour and expression in the Violin Concerto is to be aware of something truly miraculous. This performance found MTT and the LSO realising Berg’s orchestral palette in very precise terms. Anne-Sophie Mutter was in good form, her characteristic over-emphasis and sometimes-sour tone finding its natural outlet. She does not though have the music’s soul. This worked to advantage, for as first among equals – in this work everybody is a soloist – she provided the character-focus around which the LSO played chamber music.

MTT does not conduct the ’rest’ of Mahler’s Tenth – left in short score and made performable by Deryck Cooke and others. I assume, at this concert, the edition that Ernst Krenek prepared of the Adagio in the ’thirties was used – certainly there were brief moments of scoring and even harmony that do not correspond to Cooke. In this movement, which Mahler more or less completed, he uses a relatively small orchestra (no percussion at all) and takes a linear view of expression. MTT conducted broadly; this was a few seconds short of 30 minutes and conveyed the composer’s resignation and contemplation of the beyond. It was movingly done, with some fine string playing, not least the violas that launch the movement. If some uncertainty arose later, and the dissonant climax lacked bite, it was the etherealness of the whole that lingered.

Berg’s Op.6 is not his final music, anything but. It is though his final work for orchestra without soloists or the stage. It is also, in my opinion, about last things – civilisation ravaged by carnage and destruction: an emotional roller coaster. It dates from 1915. Innocent movement titles – ’Prelude’, ’Round dance’ and ’March’ – cannot suggest the music’s complexity, premonitions and hallucinations; this is music of extremes that challenges even the greatest orchestras in terms of register, technique and ensemble. A few lapses aside, this was a heroic performance – and MTT gave us the music between the eyes despite rather tepid hammer-blows in the ’March’ where Berg seems to re-visit the huge finale of Mahler 6. This was a performance that conveyed the full nightmare of Berg’s uncompromising vision and closed the concert with senses reeling.

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