LSO/Chung Maxim Vengerov

Violin Concerto in D, Op.61
Mussorgsky orch. Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition

Maxim Vengerov (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
Myung-Whun Chung

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 3 March, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

It has become a habit in recent years for violin virtuosos to take a leisurely stroll through the first movement of the Beethoven concerto. Quite why this is so remains a puzzle. Perhaps it comes as a reaction to the time when Heifetz and his colleagues took the opposite approach: briskness bordering on the brusque.

Be that as it may, Maxim Vengerov, playing this work with the LSO for the umpteenth time (!), seems firmly of the opinion that this is how the first movement goes. I have never heard a slower, more stately tempo for this imperious movement. Even Otto Klemperer in old age would have balked at this. Vengerov is not necessarily wrong … but.

On the plus side, the violinist displayed an impeccable technique, with the softest of tone in the more withdrawn passages. The fact that the overall impression sounded rather like a cautious run-through did not prevent an impression of care and attention to detail.

But, and it is a big but, such seeming caution robbed the music of its innate vitality and drained away its dynamism; the contrasts inherent in the music were almost completely nullified. When Vengerov played the lovely second subject it failed to contrast with the more energetic music heard earlier because it had been played in so lethargic a manner.

The slow movement also lacked light and shade; the beautiful melody in the middle section, Heaven-sent in its simplicity of utterance, failed to register against the more emotional outer stretches of this most magical movement. Vengerov set a more sensible tempo for the finale, but, by then, everyone on the platform, including the conductor, seemed to have succumbed to the somnolent approach already established. Vengerov played his own cadenzas.

There were no such qualms with Pictures at an Exhibition (in the usual Ravel scoring; there are many other orchestrations.). Myung-Whun Chung, with whom the LSO is embarking on a Far East tour, bought real passion to this very familiar score, allowing the players to produce a spine-tingling performance. Not everything was impeccably played, but the odd slip matters less than the sense of corporate achievement conveying the picturesque effects. Chung achieved the very quietest playing at times and was in complete control of a score that exemplifies colour and contrast.

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