LSO Vengerov Rostropovich / Podgaits Premiere

Violin Concerto in D, Op.61
Symphony No.2 [World premiere]

Maxim Vengerov (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
Mstislav Rostropovich

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 6 July, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Maxim Vengerov and Mstislav Rostropovich have been an effective partnership in their recordings of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Britten for Teldec and EMI. However, Beethoven’s concerto is some stylistic distance from these twentieth-century masters; Vengerov’s performance last year with the LSO under Colin Davis was an uncertain affair, and this sequel suggests that it was not all the conductor’s fault.

That said, Rostropovich mirrored Davis in setting a slow, monumental tempo for the first movement; he seemed keen to emphasise the work’s dramatic side, but while this produced some effective moments of tension, particularly in the hushed ticking of the strings, the conducting was too vague to be effective. Woodwind soloists seemed uncertain of whether they were supposed to be in the foreground or accompanying, and the orchestra lacked the definition that this deceptively simple music requires.

Vengerov played with his usual silkily honeyed tone and feverish dexterity. He is certainly a wonderful musician – his delicate pianissimo projects over the orchestra with pin-sharp clarity, and there were some delightful moments as he handed the melodic line to the orchestra – but he has not yet found his way to a convincing interpretation of this concerto. While it lacks the overt confrontation of Beethoven’s piano concertos, there must still be struggle as well as sweetness. In Vengerov’s hands, Beethoven’s beautiful melodies slid past all too easily, before being interrupted by a jarringly aggressive cadenza in the first movement, presumably the soloist’s own. I never expected to be bored by this concerto, but by the time of the rather galumphing Rondo, I couldn’t wait for it to finish.

I was clearly in the minority in this regard, though such is Vengerov’s celebrity that the fans who packed out the Barbican Hall would, I suspect, have given the same ecstatic reception however and whatever he played.

Ephrem Podgaits is apparently a successful commercial composer in Russia, though his work is not well known in the west. His Second Symphony was commissioned by Rostropovich and described thus by the composer in the programme note:“Rostropovich said: ‘I want you to write a big symphony for me, and I want the symphony to be as significant for you as the Fifth Symphony was in the work of Shostakovich’.”

That Podgaits publicises this remark says much of his regard for his own abilities. His Second Symphony is a dreadful piece, a Frankenstein’s monster of stitched-together clichés, with scraps of Bartókian fugal writing, cloying Gorecki strings and Brittenish rhythmic ostinatos, lumbering aimlessly between noisy climaxes and without any hint of original thought. Especially bad is the outrageously sentimental slow movement, a sugary confection of twinkling celeste and Broadway schmaltz. It’s all very cynical – a few unchallenging tunes, a swift tug on the heart-strings and Bob’s your corporate-sponsored uncle. The LSO played well, but it’s a shame that the orchestra finished its centenary season on such a resounding bum note.

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