LSO/Welser-Möst – 12 February

Don Quixote, Op.35
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.54

Tim Hugh (cello)

London Symphony Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 12 February, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

By any standards, the reviews that Franz Welser-Möst received as Music Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra were harsh – the result, for the most part, of someone having been such a post too soon. More recently, his directorship of Zurich Opera, with whom he brought Tannhäuser to the South Bank last year, and current position as Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra have necessitated a reappraisal in his standing. This concert, his debut with the London Symphony Orchestra, offeredthe opportunity to do just that.

Certainly the performance of Strauss’s Don Quixote was never less than musical. Hardly a piece of which the LSO can claim ignorance, Welser-Möst made his mark in the naturalness of pacing and the placing of detail, though the tutti chords with which Strauss punctuates the overall design could have been more carefully balanced. More worrying was a lack of dynamism in the unfolding of the musical narrative – essential if these “Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character” are to have imagination and spontaneity. In this respect, Tim Hugh could have made more of a difference: as musicianly a cellist as any active today, and an orchestral section leader easily able to command ’solo’ status, his essentially inward approach meant a muted response in such descriptive variations as the Don’s encounters with windmills and sheep, though the Arcadian vision of Dulcinea and the Don’s defeat and death were movingly portrayed. It might have helped had Hugh acted more on violist Edward Vanderspar’s telling characterisation of Sancho Panza, the ’straight guy’ against whom the Don’s flights of fancy seem the more perverse if ultimately touching.

Shostakovich is a composer still recognised but grudgingly by the majority of conductors working within the Austro-German ’tradition’ (Kurts Sanderling and Musur being notable exceptions). No doubt involvement in American cultural life has helped bring him into Welser-Möst’s perspective, though this account of the Sixth Symphony was a qualified success at best. A work outwardly disregarding symphonic practice needs to have a stronger overall sense of momentum than here to ensure cohesion. Thus the lengthy opening Largo lacked an evolving sense of form in its impassioned initial stages, Welser-Möst seeming content to proceed in the hope that some manner of inevitability might emerge of its own accord. Yet the crepuscular central section was finely realised, with playing from the LSO woodwinds to remind one of their sheer quality of ensemble, as was the elegiac recall of initial themes at the close. The Allegro had the right heft and not a little malevolence (guest timpanist Andrew Smith in his element), but the Presto was too inhibited both in its capriciousness and – in the explosive central episode – desperation to round off matters with the razor-edged mindlessness required.

Some incisive playing, even so, suggested that the orchestra thought well enough of this conductor to give more than an ’auto-pilot’ response. Signed up in Cleveland until at least 2012, Welser-Möst will have many opportunities to develop this aspect of his repertoire and others besides. And, the relatively small attendance notwithstanding, it would be surprising were he not to reappear more frequently in London now that his unfortunate ’galley years’ are well behind him.

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