LPO/Masur – 13 December

Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.60 (Leningrad)

Leon McCawley (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Kurt Masur

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 13 December, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The concerto was rather lightweight, a little too fast also, almost as if Kurt Masur had an eye on historical correctness. Maybe, maybe not, but this was a comfortable view of music that should have more emotional charge. Leon McCawley entered into the crisp, clear world created by the orchestra with playing that was, well, crisp and clear. Elegant even, placid and gentlemanly. Welcome traits! Yet, a few feathers could have been ruffled, surely? McCawley did nothing more memorable than some ravishing rippling arpeggios in the slow movement – which displayed artistry and sensitivity in spades, but the swiftness of the outer movements sometimes undid his smooth approach – this was the wrong sort of roughness – and the Largo middle movement sounded a little hasty. Precious little wit surfaced in the finale in a performance altogether too streamlined.

The Leningrad Symphony, with its significant extra-musical factor, was created in very particular circumstances – 1941, the German siege of Leningrad – although whether Shostakovich’s chronicle is specifically Hitler or, just as likely, an indictment of internal politics, can remain open. Not doubted for a second is Shostakovich’s musical depiction of terrible times and a need to be optimistic. Yet, the banality and bombast that informs this symphony can make the work seem insufferable, especially if the conductor opts for as musical approach as possible.

One can’t really complain that Masur conducted Shostakovich 7 as a ’Symphony in C’ and controlled its expanses in masterly fashion, and obtained a totally committed response from the LPO. One could cite certain members of the audience – coughers, sneezers and bag-rustlers – as a minority that significantly undermined the concentration on the platform and from most of the audience; yet, the symphony sprawls, and maybe its best to play it for more than its worth. Masur didn’t, in the sense that he nurtured it and treated it with the utmost respect; the paucity of invention rather undid Masur’s seriousness of purpose.

If Masur could have invested more ’situation’ into this traversal, then the symphony’s manifold weaknesses may not have been so obvious. One doesn’t like to criticise a reading that was as scrupulously musical as this one – Masur’s separating the large brass contingent into two, one as a sit-alone ’choir’ was novel – yet the composer’s chronicle seemed understated (though not in decibel terms!), Masur certainly scored a musical success without nailing us to the wall. But, maybe we should have been.

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