LSO/Volkov Yuri Bashmet

Plinth [LSO/UBS Sound Adventures commission: World premiere]
Viola Concerto
Symphony No.10 in E minor, Op.93

Yuri Bashmet (viola)

London Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov

Reviewed by: Sam Lowry

Reviewed: 14 November, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Ilan Volkov. ©Keith SaundersThe London Symphony Orchestra’s concert of Bartók and Shostakovich was staggering for its virtuosity and invention, and sickening for the dozens of empty seats. The programme was not exactly populist, but neither was it challenging – excepting the first five minutes given over to an unadvertised commission (the latest of 18 from UBS) by Emily Hall, a short, pointless monolith of grinding repetition, about which the composer failed to say anything interesting in the talk.

With the passing of this toe-curling introduction, the LSO proceeded to demonstrate, in genuine partnership with Ilan Volkov, why it is this country’s finest orchestra: its virtuosity has come by reputation and tradition at the cost of beauty and elegance, but, aside from the trumpet section’s ubiquitous lack of restraint, there was little sign of roughness on this occasion – and then in music that is held either to warrant it, or to at least survive it.

Yuri BashmetBartók’s Viola Concerto was magically rendered, with a moderation attributable to Volkov, whose physical restraint was manifest in an interpretative approach that emphasised voicing and line to exquisite effect. The dense counterpoint and sometimes awkward part-writing has led more often than not to a messy, disjunctive sound, but the LSO and Volkov produced honey in place of vinegar. Yuri Bashmet played his part using a score, which was something of a surprise considering the number of times he has played it, and he phrased with a somewhat nagging, insistent quality – beautiful though the tone was. In the quieter episodes he appeared to relax, but in spite of the orchestra’s almost introspective accompaniment he seemed determined not to be outdone. His brief encore was a reminder not only of this superb artist’s capacity for understatement, but also of the difference the viola’s darker sonority makes to the performance of Bach’s music for unaccompanied violin.

Sonority was everything in the Shostakovich Symphony. The orchestra’s extraordinary string section – led with ravishing warmth, articulation and expressiveness by the violins poured forth with a lyricism of which Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic could only have dreamed. Volkov ensured that this relative indulgence did not come at the expense of line or structure, and the opening movement’s colossal architecture was revealed with almost agonising deliberation. The second movement was launched at a speed, and with a fury, that invited disaster. Rarely has this music survived such a driving tempo without collapsing in on itself: the individual sections of the orchestra were audible throughout and the part-writing survived such reckless energy. Yes, the brass was too loud, and the percussion bloated, but the overall effect of the music quickened the pulse as the composer intended.

The third and fourth movements were kaleidoscopic, and rendered yet more memorable by the contributions of bassoonist Rachel Gough and Christine Pendrill on cor anglais); the entire horn, flute and oboe sections played like gods, and mention should be made of the heroic piccolo playing of Sharon Williams. In truth, and aside from a curious final beat, in which the timpanist appeared to finish half a bar after everyone else, this was one of the finest performances of this music I have heard.

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