Manfred, Op.115 – Overture
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47 [Revised Version]
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 5 July, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The London Symphony Orchestra closed its 2008/09 Season with Brahms’s Second Symphony, just as the Philharmonia Orchestra had closed its season a few days earlier. On that occasion Christoph von Dohnányi conducted, building on his superb performance with that orchestra from two years earlier. Until recently it seemed to be that London concerts were often ‘the same old pieces with different conductors’, now it’s becoming ‘the same old pieces with the same conductors’, for Daniel Harding last conducted Brahms 2 with the LSO as recently as April last year! And just to complete what might be thought of as ‘ever decreasing circles’, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay was leading the Philharmonia Orchestra a few days ago and was now taking that position with the LSO for this concert!
Harding and Dohnányi would agree that antiphonal violins are important in this music (indeed, the strings were laid-out identically, double basses on the left, cellos left-centre), but they would disagree whether the repeat of the exposition in the first movement should be observed; Harding’s exclusion of it was just as convincing as Dohnányi’s taking it. Initially, Harding’s seemed a sunny and pastoral view of the symphony but he proved quite manipulative of the music, sweeping it forward at times but rather too obviously snoozing-through the closing bars. The Adagio was dug deep into without losing radiance, moments of indulgence working well on the heartstrings. The Allegretto grazioso was elegant enough, it’s quicker middle section rather pushed through, and the finale was unforced and rambunctious; if Harding slowed too much for reflective sections, he and the LSO pushed the throttle effectively for the coda and ended the work, and the season, in jubilant style.
On this occasion Brahms brought the best out of the LSO (including superbly incisive, variegated and non-bombastic timpani-playing from the unnamed guest – it wasn’t the listed Nigel Thomas) and was able to sport nine double basses; yet, it was only six in the first half, which made Manfred somewhat lightweight in a performance that caught the music’s sense of theatre but not without contrivance.
A shame that the silence at the end of this intense masterpiece was ruined by too-early applause. Happy-clappers were also in attendance for the first two movements of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto (fortunately the Brahms wasn’t marred by such intrusion) which found Frank Peter Zimmermann an inconsistent soloist: cool and acerbic-sounding to begin with, then forcing through the tone and sacrificing good intonation, yet catching fire in the cadenza and its aftermath, tension accumulating for the rest of the movement. The woodwinds bewitched at the beginning of the slow movement, Zimmermann rising to eloquent heights, but the finale was way too fast; a showpiece for the violinist but with no regard for Sibelius’s ‘ma non tanto’ qualification; what should be crisp orchestral rhythms became a blur (it seemed more agreeable when Zimmermann last played the Sibelius in London, on 26 October last year, with Dohnányi conducting).
Zimmermann offered an encore (the same one as last time post-Sibelius!). Had the finale been more exacting of the music itself rather than used for putting on a display, then Bach would have been appropriate, but here the frivolous machinations of Paganini served well enough! Fortunately, the Brahms was still to come … and may come again!