London Philharmonic/Elder Anne-Sophie Mutter [The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca … Symphonia Domestica]

The Frescoes of Piero della Francesca
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Symphonia Domestica, Op.53

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 24 January, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Sir Mark Elder. Photograph: Clive Barda/ArenapalThis very attractive programme featured two unfairly neglected orchestral works together with an evergreen violin concerto. The level of preparation was high throughout, Mark Elder and the London Philharmonic brought a tactile and detailed accompaniment to Anne-Sophie Mutter’s mannered playing of Mendelssohn. She was shaky and coy to begin with (her upper-register tone lacking body) and then indulged an affected slowing for the ‘second subject’. Interventions elsewhere rarely convinced; the slow movement was maudlin, the finale pressured, calculated and cold.

Bohuslav Martinů died 50 years ago this year. In response to seeing frescoes of Piero della Francesca (15th-century) he composed a three-movement suite in 1955 that stands high in his achievements; music that glows and syncopates, and is often intensely beautiful, as well as tantalising the ear in its mechanisms and mosaics. It received a fine performance that hopefully will generate further interest in a very distinctive composer.

Richard Strauss needs no such advocacy, but Symphonia Domestica does! It’s a rarity. Of performances in London in the last couple of decade, this writer can only recall ones conducted by Mehta, Previn and Sawallisch. Elder gave an informative spoken introduction to it, wittily debunking the ‘day in the life of the Strausses’ aspect of the piece in favour of something deeper regarding the ‘family unit’ as well as being persuasive regarding its structure, three movements rather than the stated four; certainly ‘Scherzo (munter)’ here seemed an unequivocal extension of the opening section, although it could be argued the work is actually a continuous transformation of motifs for Elder ensured the cyclical process was wonderfully clear.

The performance was brilliant! The LPO (able to field 10 double basses) was on top form (members of the LSO, Carmine Lauri and Evgeny Grach, respectively leading the two violin sections, which were appositely antiphonal).

Elder is a seasoned Straussian and conducts Symphonia Domestica with no regard to its perceived weaknesses. What was wonderful, too, was how Strauss’s lavish use of a large orchestra (it would have been fuller still had Elder taken the option of the ad lib quartet of saxophones) is actually so lucid: rococo decoration was always clear and there was a lean and nimble approach that paid many dividends. Grace and affection, too (including a lovely oboe d’amore solo from Timothy Watts) as well as warmth and subtlety in the central (love-making!) slow movement (cued and wrapped by shrewdly different timbres for the evening and morning bells) … and plenty of exhilaration – the coda was electrifying (albeit with a couple of unauthorised timpani notes!), bombast avoided.

A couple of patches would be needed, but hopefully this memorable (and, at times, revelatory) account of Symphonia Domestica can be issued on the LPO’s label, equally hopefully with the Frescoes. The LPO has coupled Bax and Rachmaninov (conducted by Osmo Vänskä), so why not Martinů and Richard Strauss?

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