London Schools Symphony Orchestra/Tamás Vásáry

Scherzo capriccioso, Op.66
Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor, Op.21
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73

London Schools Symphony Orchestra
Tamás Vásáry (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 22 April, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Tamás Vásáry. Photograph: tamas-vasary.comJust prior to this concert, London (in the Royal Festival Hall) had welcomed the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and Gustavo Dudamel (for a several-day residency) and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and Paul Daniel. The London Schools Symphony Orchestra caters for slightly younger musicians (and requires a standard of Grade 7 and above). If the playing is less secure and more variably tuned than such elite ‘youth orchestras’ display, there is no lack of talent, preparation and enthusiasm.

Here Tamás Vásáry returned to the LSSO. He remains an energetic presence (he is now in his 76th year if not any longer, as stated in the biography used in the programme, the music director of the Budapest Symphony Orchestra – that position is occupied by Adam Fischer, Vásáry having taken an honorary position).

Dvořák’s Scherzo capriccioso made a welcome start to the evening, launched confidently by the horns, Vásáry judging well the tempo for the outer sections, which caught the music’s emotional edge and allowed the melancholy middle part (here repeated to advantage and as the composer marks) to emerge naturally. This was the only work in the concert that allowed us to hear piccolo, cor anglais, bass clarinet and harp. These players (some doubling) made fine contributions.

Vásáry is of course a notable interpreter of Chopin. In directing as well as playing, much was left to the young musicians to be alert and unanimous – and to follow their leader (the assured Konrad Wagstyl) –, which they did with aplomb. Vásáry played from a ‘conventional’ solo position (that is with his back to the orchestra’s leader), woodwinds huddling together as a ‘fifth’ member of the strings.

It was, to say the least, a direct, no-nonsense performance (no smelling the flowers, or the coffee), nothing languid or sentimental. It wasn’t the cleanest performance Vásáry will have given, and it might be thought overly efficient – impatient even. Yet his affinity with this composer was apparent; so too his experience, which shone through in moments that were less than secure, and the music’s shape and inflexions were there to be heard, they just weren’t drawn attention to.

Not that Vásáry was being ungenerous. The horn call that launches the ultimate coda had not gone too well, and Vásáry’s playing was rather unkempt in the scintillation that ends the work. So he played that bit again, to the better for all concerned. He then offered a solo encore, not least for his friend Uri Geller (in the audience), Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.15, the one that uses the Rákóczy March (the Hungarian March in Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust”), a performance of unforced flamboyance, dignity too, save for the smash-and-grab final bars.

Of Brahms’s Second Symphony, Vásáry once again chose swift tempos (rather relentless at times) and an integration that allowed few if any contrasts (and no repeat of the first-movement exposition); so, the rallentando he inserted two-thirds of the way through the finale seemed no more than an aberration. Yet, as in the Chopin, such a direct view (Classical with a vengeance, all over in 37 minutes) didn’t ride roughshod over subtleties of phrase or inflection; it was simply that nothing was made attention-seeking. The playing was never less than alert (and included a memorable solo horn) and adaptable to Vásáry’s keen (anti-Romantic?) approach. Although one could quibble things interpretatively, the London Schools Symphony Orchestra certainly put on a good show.

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