London Philharmonic/David Zinman – Mozart’s Prague Symphony & Death and Transfiguration – Emanuel Ax plays Bach and Burleske

Symphony No.38 in D, K504 (Prague)
Concerto in D minor for Keyboard, Strings and Continuo, BWV1052
Tod und Verklärung, Op.24

Emanuel Ax (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
David Zinman

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 March, 2014
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

David Zinman. Photograph: © Priska KettererLast time David Zinman conducted the London Philharmonic in the capital (in October 2010) he included Ein Heldenleben. Returning here to Richard Strauss, in his 150th-anniversary year, Zinman gave us Death and Transfiguration. Three minutes in, however, what sounded like a ‘panic alarm’ suddenly disrupted the dark and dank if potent atmosphere that was being created. Exit hastily a woman (from the Choir area) and eventually the noise ceased. Zinman had by now laid down his baton and after a suitable pause for the re-gathering of thoughts we started again from bar one. The performance came together remarkably well. Zinman isn’t one for purple prose, spotlighting incidents or imposing self; rather this Death and Transfiguration was integrated and noble, when the music raged it did so doggedly, and if overall the rendition seemed particularly expansive then there was also an underlying rigour that kept things on course, gloriously so to a transcendental climax and final serenity. The LPO was in superb form both corporately – responsive, lustrous and resplendent – and in many fine solo contributions.

To begin the concert, Mozart’s ‘Prague’ Symphony had opened in brisk if imposing style (hardly Adagio) and the Allegro was exhilaratingly quick, but the strings were a little hard-pressed and although there was much rhythmic cut and thrust, a little more expressive leeway was desirable. The Andante was swift and smooth, glossing over pathos; and both here and in the opening movement the observance of exposition repeats only served to underline a certain blandness and monotony. (Rafael Kubelík, one of this Symphony’s greatest interpreters, knew so well that this work moves forward irresistibly and that the need for repetition is debatable.) The finale (there is no Minuet), although afforded plenty of bounce and accent, was short on chuckles; although, conversely, here the second-half repeat would have been welcome.

Emanuel Ax. Photograph: © Marie Mazzucco / Sony ClassicalEmanuel Ax was in sparkling form for his two appearances. In the Concerto by J. S. Bach, the combination of grand-piano and strings sounded hopelessly anachronistic while also affording guilty pleasure. With Ax both soloist and continuo, and the LPO’s strings totalling 17, and mostly one-to-a-part in the slow movement, this substantial piece gained from Ax’s gleaming piano (although a more-brittle harpsichord would have brought other qualities) against sepulchral minor-key strings, dynamics sometimes pared-down to a significant and suspenseful whisper, drawing the listener in. The shadowy slow movement enjoyed Ax’s decorated expressiveness, his instrument romantically entangled with Baroque runes, and the finale ran its route with purpose.

Beforehand, Ax had played another 20-minute D-minor piece, Richard Strauss’s Burleske (1886/90), originally entitled Scherzo. Burleske is a bundle of joy, capricious, urbane and quixotic, maybe a Mickey-take, lyrical with a touch of smooch, and a twinkle-in-the-eye sense of theatre that is something of a pianistic Till Eulenspiegel, fantastically well-played by Ax, with heightened bravura and affectionate touch vying with dry wit. Such merry pranks were underpinned and dislocated by Simon Carrington’s timpani motto and fateful interjections. It’s almost as if Strauss in early adulthood was still looking to be a naughty schoolboy – something for a child psychiatrist to analyse, as it happens an occupation coming in to its own as Strauss reclaimed the Bülow-rejected Scherzo. Resisting any such dissertation, Ax, Zinman and the LPO gave us revealing and vivid characterisations and also a lot of fun.

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