LSO/Segerstam Sarah Chang [Shostakovich & Brahms]

Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.77 [formerly Op.99]
Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68

Sarah Chang (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
Leif Segerstam

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 21 February, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Leif Segerstam. Photograph: Maarit KytöharjuThis was Leif Segerstam’s first encounter with the London Symphony Orchestra. Apparently, he had the players in stitches during rehearsals – amidst making exacting musical demands.

An ‘overture’ having been side-stepped, Sarah Chang arrived with Segerstam. She glittered from head to foot: her tight-fitting silvery dress outshone the moon. Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto is something of a calling-card for her. This America-trained lady of Korean extraction is a cool customer.Sarah Chang. Photograph: Sheila RockHer playing is shiny yet mellow, suiting the Guarneri del Gesu violin she bought some ten years ago, in her teens. Her refined, graceful, shimmering flow gains an actively extended vibrato from time to time, denoting greater intensities of emotion, culminating in the impassioned hurt of the lengthy cadenza, powerful and expressive. But two features were missing from this suave operation – cries of inner torment and the raucous stamp of a Russian dance.

Segerstam invoked dark brooding for the openings of the ‘Nocturne’ and ‘Passacaglia’ – apocalyptic for the latter – but bearing little relation to the rest of these movements. The orchestral accompaniment was a valid augmentation to the violin’s meditations, a life-breathing counterpoint. During the ‘Scherzo’ and the ‘Burlesque’, Segerstam came into his own. Shostakovich’s brilliant and hectic deployment of orchestral colour evoked vivid squeals of festive stampede in this garish carnival, in which Chang’s violin intervened – a squeaking, almost grating, Harlequin.

The second monolith of the evening – Brahms 1 – was given a towering performance. Its blaze and magnificence was almost beyond imagination. Only rarely does a performance of such an over-familiar work have one on the edge of one’s seat, poised in suspense while anticipating what will come next, breathless in awe at the genius of the composer and revelling in this particular meeting of musicians.

The awesome opening extended in one over-arching phrase until the second, even greater, climax. This treated the superb timpanist as a member of the orchestra rather than as an intruding noise-maker. The initial thundering motif was banged out portentously, to be sure, but Segerstam ensured that we noted it played soon after on the cellos, more quietly – after which the timpanist picked up the motif once more, sotto voce.

The performance had tremendous pulse, power and vigour. What Segerstam supremely understands is that ‘Brahms, alive and commanding’, is not ‘Brahms played faster’ – he took a brisk stride yet remained stately, grand and splendid. There is then space for brass- and woodwind-solos and sublime plucking from the strings – and no problems of orchestral muddiness. Here the sound was propelled towards light and tripping rather than heavy and hob-nailed – with room to incorporate the odd Viennese lilt and Hungarian twirl.

The LSO played brilliantly. The musicians gave their all. There is a lesson for whiz-kids here. How such magnificent, dynamic and multi-coloured splendour was brought into being? I inclined towards asking: ‘How did Segerstam make the LSO play like that?’ Quickly I realised how crass my question was. The correct question is: ‘What made the LSO want to play like that?’ Hopefully Segerstam will return to the LSO soon and often.

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