Suite from the Orchestral Works of J. S. Bach
Violin Concerto No.2, Op.129
Five Movements, Op.5 [string orchestra version]
Beethoven, arr. Mahler
String Quartet in F minor, Op.95 (Serioso)
Janine Jansen (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 20 April, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
It was encouraging that this pleasingly unhackneyed programme drew a large if not a full house. Mahler and Shostakovich – those ‘twin peaks’ of box-office success – will have been an attraction of course, save the former was here an arranger and the latter was represented by music that doesn’t court popularity. A couple of exceptions aside, this was an audience less-troubled by bronchial problems than is now the norm, no mobile rang, there was no between-movement applause and people sat and listened. There was a palpable sense of involvement.
The concert’s second half featured the London Philharmonic’s strings. Anton Webern’s re-working of his Opus 5 string-quartet pieces – and here’s a composer that can empty a concert-hall – were best here in the slower, quieter passages, beautifully played and sounded, the final Movement expressive and intimate (coughs, sneezes and some sweet-wrapper opening interrupted though), Vladimir Jurowski conjuring a very refined response from his musicians. Elsewhere though there was a lack of bite and absolute precision – these epigrammatic yet dimensional pieces demand nothing less than absolute security and unanimity. But, this music (as with Webern’s other creations for orchestra) – here accessible and romantic – really does deserve more outings.
The Beethoven was less successful, partly because, and despite Mahler’s reasoning of ensemble-numbers and performing-space necessitating such an arrangement, the amplification from string-quartet to string-orchestra adds a gloss to music that requires a rugged and individual-times-four response. Whatever tweaks Mahler made to dynamics, tempos and the like, this performance was throughout too deliberate, such under-tempos debilitating the concentration and rough-hewn intellectualism of Beethoven’s inspiration, which here seemed overly-distended and serenade-like. The sort-of-slow second movement, marked Allegretto ma non troppo by Beethoven, was made soporifically slow and would have passed for Bruckner; so too would the introduction to the finale.
The first half included Shostakovich’s grim and fateful Violin Concerto No.2 (1967), written for David Oistrakh. On its own despairing, quirky and soulful terms it works well-enough; except that it is cliché-ridden in terms of gesture, all-too-familiar sounds and motifs that recall earlier works (and anticipate those few that would follow). Predominantly slow music that becomes agitated, a skittish, nervy finale, some pungent scoring and cryptic comments: the ingredients are familiar, save one appreciates that music was a means for Shostakovich to chronicle and encode his sometimes-marooned life. Yet the performance was a stellar one. Janine Jansen played remarkably well, with an energy, poise and vivid identification that made every note the violin plays come to life; and the LPO (Shostakovich omits trumpets and trombones) was as supportive and disruptive as the score demands.
Opening the concert (which gave some LPO musicians a night off or others very little to do) was Mahler’s re-working of selections from two of J. S. Bach’s ‘orchestral’ suites. And gloriously anachronistic it all was, the RFH organ called upon for cathedral invocation in the first movement, and a harpsichord sound created by an upright piano ‘prepared’ with metal tacks inserted into the hammers – just as Mahler had done in New York in 1909 when he made these Bach arrangements. If John Cage was anticipated with such tinkering to a piano, then so too was Jacques Loussier, Mahler adding some ‘swing’ to Bach’s baroque measures. Flautist Jaime Martín had much to do, and did so with aplomb and style. The ‘Air’ (the one known as “on the ‘G’ string”) was wonderfully done – such romance! – and, elsewherem three trumpets and crisp-sounding timpani stirred the air in ceremonial fashion.