LPO, Klaus M­äkelä and Julian Rachlin – Shostakovich, Larcher and Mahler

Violin Concerto No.1 in A-minor, Op.77

Thomas Larcher
Symphony No.2 (Kenotaph)

Symphony No.10 in F-sharp – I: Adagio

Julian Rachlin (violin)

 London Philharmonic Orchestra
Klaus M­äkelä

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 29 April, 2023
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

This LPO concert was titled ‘Music from the Shadows’, and Klaus M­äkelä steered the orchestra through big works written between 1910 and 2016, all of them tonal, melodic and traditionally symphonic. And there were plenty of shadows, ranging from colourless grey to deepest black, from haunting anxiety to rock-hard darkness.

The programme note described Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No.1 as ‘a symphony in all but name’, which gave Julian Rachlin all the leeway he needed to impose and withdraw the soloist’s prerogatives in an overwhelming working-out of identity and domination. Rachlin delivered a performance that made no bones about the huge risk the composer courted with this postwar (1947) work, which, given the depth of Soviet oppression, had to wait eight years for its Leningrad premiere in 1955, by which time Stalin was dead. Whether picking his way through the bleak neutral landscape of the Nocturne, leading the dance in the delirious Scherzo, embracing a fathomless sense of regret and loss of self in the Passacaglia, or summoning up savage fury in the Finale, Rachlin spared himself and us nothing in revealing the complexities of this great Concerto. He was also in total, almost insouciant command of the sort of high-wire virtuosity that instantly connects. And he kept the tension tight in his not-so-modest encore, Ysaÿe’s Sonata No.3. Mäkelä and the LPO provided as much attitude and contrast as you could want from music that thrives on danger and limitless meaning.

Thomas Larcher’s Symphony No.2, composed as a memorial to refugees who have drowned crossing the Mediterranean, started out as a concerto for orchestra, and M­äkelä and the LPO didn’t miss a trick in Larcher’s virtuoso scoring, with a large (six players) and brilliantly conceived role for percussion and significant contributions from piano and accordion. Unlike the Shostakovich, M­äkelä ensured that this ‘Kenotaph’ Symphony made a vivid, overt impact, and while its moods of grief and anger sometimes sounded generic, its four movements kept faith with the scope of late-romanticism. Larcher judges the balance between gesture, content and expression with a sure hand and he has an impressively developed ear. It was, however, quizzical impulses such as the Scherzo’s Ländler trio added as though it was an afterthought right at the end of the movement, or the magical instrumentation in the Adagio, when Larcher’s music took you by surprise and by the throat. The score’s angular, powerful dynamics and rhythmic force suited Mäkelä’s bold and communicative conducting style, and the LPO was sensational.

The opening of the Adagio first-movement from Mahler’s unfinished (by him) Tenth Symphony was like a return to the spirit of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto. I have been used to voluptuous heartbreak as the default mode of this work, and M­äkelä’s different approach paid off handsomely. The violas’ tone was a neutral, wiry, self-communing sound that summed up the music’s isolation and resignation with unexpected eloquence. It was thoroughly internalised and private, with the big brass outbursts seeming all-the-more volcanic and uncontrollable. It was like hearing the piece for the first time, for which much thanks.

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