Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Symphony No.1 in B flat minor
Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 22 June, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
“Previn at 75” is the generic title of a series of concerts featuring the once ubiquitous maestro as composer, pianist and conductor – the latter in a trio of symphonic works (Shostakovich and Strauss) with which he has long been associated. Indelibly so in the case of Walton’s First Symphony, of which Previn and the LSO made the ‘yardstick recording’ in 1967, and which remains his most potent achievement in the classical domain.
The dashing, energetic figure of yore compared to the frail, halting figure of today could too easily be taken to symbolise the performance itself. Yet appearances, as so often, proved deceptive: though Previn was seated throughout, his undemonstrative yet attentive control of proceedings was always evident. Setting a swift yet flexible tempo for the opening Allegro, his grasp of cumulative momentum was impressive – faltering only in an effortful transition through to the reprise, whose crescendo of intensity was powerfully unfolded. The scherzo then found the right balance between malevolence and irony, though energy needed to be more tightly coiled for the ‘malizia’ designation to ring true, while the Andante proved the undoubted highlight: mindful of the wrenching dissonance that informs its progress, Previn drew a fatalistic quality from out of its desolation that would have been unfeasible four decades ago – which in itself confirms that his understanding of the music has grown with him.
True, the finale – after a purposeful introduction – took some time to get going, though the sequence of rhetorical perorations and rather stilted fugatos across its first half gave Walton the most trouble in composing, and a greater decisiveness is needed to make it cohere. Not that the entry of the percussion was anti-climactic, while the pathos that Previn extracted from the movement on its way to a resounding apotheosis showed that the bigger picture was always in mind. Not a revelatory performance, but one which explained why the work outlived its troubled genesis and sensational reception to become one of the most respected and representative symphonies of the last century.
Whether Korngold’s Violin Concerto will become so in its medium, the charge of it being no more than a film-score medley has long gone and – given with the panache but also inwardness evinced by Anne-Sophie Mutter – it takes on a subtler, more probing countenance than even its admirers may have given it credit for. With Previn at the helm, the ‘nobility’ of the first movement avoided mawkishness as surely as the ‘Romance’ drew expressive sustenance from its ethereal harmonies (made more so by the discreet balancing of vibraphone and celesta contributions). And even if the finale still adds up to little more than so much window-dressing on its way to a spectacular coup de théâtre, its place within the Korngold-ian ‘scheme of things’ was unarguable. If the piece is unlikely to mature with age, as has the Walton, the sense of it so improving can rarely have been more palpable than on this occasion.