Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani
Piano Concerto No.17 in G, K453
Symphony No.8 in G, Op.88
John Alley (piano) & Nigel Thomas (timpani)
Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Reviewed by: Diarmuid Dunne
Reviewed: 9 November, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Commissioned in 1938 by Paul Sacher for the Basle Chamber Orchestra, Martinů’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra is a turbulent, foreboding work. With its duelling string orchestras and striking dissonance it is a small leap of the imagination to the Czech composer’s own turmoil at the time. The fate of his country lay in the hands of the Nazis and Martinů himself was in the midst of a tragic affair with his pupil Vítĕzslava Kaprálová when he produced one of his most harmonically complex, emotionally turbulent and ultimately compelling works.
Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the London Symphony Orchestra gave a taut, detailed account of the opening movement and the dry acoustic of the Barbican revealed some excellent timing and exacting playing. The sound from two opposing string orchestras has to be experienced live to be properly appreciated. The density of the chords, the richness and warmth of the phalanxes of cellos and double basses and the spatial positioning of the instrumental arguments simply cannot be reproduced in recordings. The music itself was relentless, rhythmic and brought off with disciplined intensity. The slow movement inhabits an anguished world and there was a fine contribution from John Alley, a troubled voice in the midst of the brooding orchestras. The finale was also intense, with biting tenebrous strings not least in the almost fugue-like development between the opposing sections.
Completed in April 1784 for his student Barbara von Ployer, Mozart’s G major Piano Concerto is delightfully upbeat. With more than a hint of comic opera about it, it’s clear that Mozart allowed his skill with his favourite genre to overlap into his concerto writing. Amusingly the third movement was also much beloved by Mozart’s pet starling, who Mozart apparently taught to chirp the main motif (according to Mozart he kept getting one particular note wrong and held another too long). I’m not making this up!Leif Ove Andsnes made a deft opening entry, marrying the piano and orchestra with a refreshing lack of ostentation. Interweaving wind instruments and sparkling, understated pianism were evident in a charming display of light-hearted ensemble playing. There were some nice contrapuntal exchanges in the Andante, and Andsnes’s self-effacing musicianship was the perfect channel for the movement’s darker moments. The finale, a theme and variations, was sprightly with some superb pianism. A light touch and effortless technique conveyed wit and effervescence. As an encore Andsnes gave a beguiling performance of a Mendelssohn ‘Song without Words’ (in F sharp minor, Opus 67/Number 2, to be precise!). Andsnes is recording Mozart’s G major and D minor (K466) concertos for EMI, a release keenly anticipated.
Dvořák’s Symphony No.8 completed the concert. A dramatic opening was aided by a rich, full sound from the LSO and the first movement’s lighter moments, with spring-like flutes and pizzicato cellos were accurately handled. The Adagio had some excellently controlled string-playing and the brisk coda of the third movement swept into the trumpets that announce the dance-like finale. Detailed playing never allowed the movement to become a mess of abandonment, and the wild coda was conveyed with accuracy and excitement.