LSO/Alsop Pathétique Symphony

Tragic Overture, Op.81
Serenade after Plato’s ‘Symposium’
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)

James Ehnes (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 1 December, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

That Marin Alsop is good at dotting Is and crossing Ts has long been evident. That she is painstaking in rehearsal is apparent, too. All well and good, but a work like the ‘Pathétique’ needs so much more. Rarely if ever did the effort of playing the notes – and there were some moments here when the LSO was less than comfortable – transcend into a gripping, emotional or cathartic experience. Although Alsop is a demonstrative conductor, the mechanics of her technique resulted in much that was foursquare.

This was a generalised ‘Pathétique’, in sound and in tempo, and was rarely involving or moving. Alsop’s upbeat way for the second movement Waltz only convinced if the view is taken that this is one of Tchaikovsky’s weaker creations, and the succeeding March was also without the threatening undercurrents that some conductors have found in it. Alsop’s changes of tempo here were mistimed and the (unusually prominent) timpani counterpoint seemed suspiciously out of tune. At least we were spared the boorish ‘tradition’ of applause, allowing Alsop to move directly, and very effectively, into the slow finale, which again lacked tragic implications; the gong-stroke summed it up: it was just that, nothing doom-laden.

Brahms’s Tragic Overture also had little import, a straightforward ‘left-right’ account, with soggy-sounding timpani and woodwinds losing out to strings; Alsop isn’t one of the ‘converted’ to antiphonal violins, the arrangement that Brahms and Tchaikovsky wrote for, and which Michael Tilson Thomas exploited so effectively in his recent LSO Tchaikovsky concerts.

But if Alsop was found wanting in these particular ‘classics’, she came into her own in the Bernstein, his masterly Serenade for violin, strings and percussion, music of beauty, energy and skill. Whether we needed an introduction to it is debatable. Serenade is copiously recorded (Bernstein did so three times, with Stern, Francescatti and Kremer) and it doesn’t lack for contemporary versions (Bell and Hahn) and not least the LSO’s own 2002 DG recording with Mutter and Previn (which was afforded concert performances at the time). That said, Alsop was engaging and witty and her off-the-cuff comments were amusing; she’s a natural communicator and anyone not familiar with Serenade would have been easily introduced to it. I was slightly concerned that her microphone hadn’t been switched off and, indeed, an echo of James Ehnes’s tuning did seem to catch the loudspeakers, from which the barest of hisses also seemed audible at the very lowest dynamics.

Never mind, it was a very engaging performance, Ehnes himself (fresh from playing Mozart in Coventry the night before with the Philharmonia and Ashkenazy) played without affectation and exaggeration and got to the heart of the music’s varied emotions; his sweetly lyrical playing was touching (as was his duo with cellist Tim Hugh) and his virtuosity elsewhere was never divorced from the personality of the music, which is rather more than serenade-like. To this adorable score the LSO members and Alsop brought palpable identification.

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