Lorin Maazel Gala Concert

Overture – The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Op.26
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Symphony No.9 in E minor, Op.95 (From the New World)

Lisa Batiashvili (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
Lorin Maazel

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 1 December, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

While there’s never any doubt regarding Lorin Maazel’s complete technical expertise or his mastery of the notes, sometimes music seems an exercise; not on this occasion, however, in a concert that culminated in an engrossing account of the ‘New World’ Symphony. For this Gala concert, he donated his fee: does that mean he didn’t take one or he gave this amount to the orchestra? The second option an altogether better deal for the orchestra!

Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish overture’ signalled the level of preparation for familiar music that could have played itself. Maazel took nothing for granted. He graded and sifted Mendelssohn’s textures, and ebbed and flowed expression, with skill and affection; the lustrous-sounding strings phrased with eloquence, and the clarinet solo, beautifully prepared for, was shaped with sensitivity, presumably by John Stenhouse, for a moment of real frisson.

The concerto was less successful, partly due to Lisa Batiashvili’s tonal inconsistencies and her tendency to underline things that need no such treatment, and also because of the exaggerated, very obvious slowing for the first movement’s second theme, a process that became boorish later. The cadenza, though, was a highlight, beautifully played, and with the sort of spontaneity missing elsewhere. It was difficult to tell if Batiashvili was fitting in with Maazel’s view of the music (she didn’t seem to feel the tempo contrasts naturally) or whether he was prepared to go with her disjointed view of the work. The finale was a mismatch; she was rather spiky, and too loud (certainly in relation to the orchestra’s deft and discreet playing), and in the Andante, the opening idea stiffly phrased, only the double-stopped middle section brought genuine warmth of communication from the soloist.

The Dvořák was given a thought-provoking interpretation, perfectly valid if one recalls that the composer was homesick in New York. Once more, the preparation was lavish; often-overlooked details were wonderfully clear, and inner parts hummed with significance. Apart from too-loud trumpets and trombones (a common problem these days, although Kurt Masur is addressing this successfully with the London Philharmonic, as his recent, very fresh ‘New World’ demonstrated), balance was impeccable, and there was much that was subtle and ear-catching. Maazel underlined the ‘storm and stress’ in the music, and caught Dvořák’s emotional volubility. Not everything came off, though: the third, flute-led section of the first movement’s (not repeated) exposition nearly ground to a halt in its affectation (a touch of portamento in the violins equally grafted on) and Maazel’s pressing ahead in the second part of the scherzo (beautifully timed as it was) would probably only have convinced if you agree that this is the weakest music in the work.

The Largo was wonderfully done: spacious, tender and silky-smooth, the cor anglais solo shaped to perfection by Christine Pendrill. The finale, launched as a convincing attacca, could be called either exhilarating or brutally insensitive, but, unlike in the first movement, Maazel was quite scrupulous with tempo relationships and avoided ‘traditional’ slowing at points where the composer makes no such invitation. Not a routine performance, then, and one that seemed to focus more on the composer’s psyche than this being a European symphony incorporating ‘American’ tunes. This memorable account added ingredients to a work easy to take for granted.

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