London Philharmonic in New York

Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

Sarah Chang (violin)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Kurt Masur

Reviewed by: David M. Rice

Reviewed: 28 November, 2006
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

The London Philharmonic Orchestra, led by principal conductor Kurt Masur, visited New York for two performances in Carnegie Hall. The second of these featured violinist Sarah Chang playing Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and Masur’s reading of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony. (On the previous evening, pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja was the soloist in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.2, with Liszt’s Les Preludes and Brahms’s Second Symphony also on the programme.) Masur, 80 next year, who was prevented by illness from accompanying the orchestra on its last visit to New York, seemed more frail than on his last appearance here a year ago, but still in full command of his conducting prowess.

The concert got off to an excellent start with Chang’s performance of Sibelius, beginning with her soft intoning of its haunting opening theme. Even before the first extended orchestral tutti, she had demonstrated her flawless dexterity and expressive tone. In the opening Allegro moderato the orchestral accompaniments and interludes sustained a dark and brooding atmosphere, with glimpses of optimism only from occasional wind solos and the dominant solo violin. Chang was fully up to Sibelius’s imposing technical challenges, not only in the brilliant cadenza but also throughout the movement. Masur generally kept the orchestra in good dynamic balance, but in one tutti passage late in the movement he let the horns and brass get overly loud and bombastic. In the sweetly lyrical Adagio molto, Chang created an almost dream-like atmosphere with her clear, penetrating tone and delicate phrasing. Then, in the dazzling and rhythmically fascinating Allegro ma non tanto finale, she generated sparks as she ran through its almost unbroken succession of pyrotechnics.

Following the interval, Masur guided the orchestra through an outstanding performance of Beethoven’s Third Symphony. He evoked terrific ensemble playing from the orchestra so that solos, however well played, were heard as part of the coherent ongoing flow of the music rather than as virtuosic interruptions. Of course, when the score placed the solo instrument at centre stage – as in the climactic second movement horn solo and the oboe solo that opens the poco andante section of the finale – the solos stood out appropriately and were excellently played.

Masur was faithful to the score, adopting fairly standard tempos, and observed the first movement exposition repeat (the performance ran just under 50 minutes) and resisting any temptation to exaggerate particular elements. Thus in the opening movement, the recurring series of sforzandos were given just the right degree of emphasis, the horn was kept in balance above the strings and winds, and changes of dynamics appropriately built and relieved the musical tension. Particularly nice was the passage immediately preceding the recapitulation, with pp violin tremolos alternating with wind chords, then softening to ppp below the horn’s ‘false’ entry, cut off by ff chords from which the main theme finally emerged on the cellos.

The ‘funeral march’ second movement was performed with due solemnity, with excellent playing by all of the string sections, lovely sonority from the wind ensemble, and fine wind solos. The middle portion of this movement was particularly gripping, with each element built organically on what had preceded it. Starting in the ‘maggiore’ section with a superbly played tutti, highlighted by trumpets and timpani, a brief transitional passage led to the first violins’ sotto voce restatement of the funeral march theme. This was followed by a fugue on a variant form of that theme, initiated by the solo bassoon and second violins and peaking at the ff horn solo, after which an agitated tutti passage ended abruptly with the first violins again playing sotto voce – but this time not completing the theme.

The scherzo was delightfully played at a brisk tempo, with the horns standing out in the trio and the timpani solo in the coda being very well done. The Allegro molto finale was both vigorous and playful, doing full justice to the great variety of Beethoven’s variations on a theme that he borrowed from his own previously composed ballet music for The Creatures of Prometheus. There were some tender moments in the poco andante section, and a thrilling presto to end the performance.

Masur received a prolonged ovation, demonstrating New Yorkers’ affection and appreciation for his eleven years as the music director of the New York Philharmonic as well as for his continuing music-making.

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