Midori, Mehta & the LSO – 27 April

Leonora – Overture No.3, Op.72
Violin Concerto No.3 in G, K216
Violin Concerto in B minor, Op.61

Midori (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
Zubin Mehta

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 27 April, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Once in a while something special comes along and with it the need for a reviewer to acknowledge the exceptional.

This happened when a Japanese violinist, an Indian conductor and the LSO combined to tackle that most quintessentially English of works, Elgar’s Violin Concerto, and succeeded in getting as near to the heart of the matter as one has any right to expect. Elgar headed his score “Anquí está encerra el alma de…” (Here is enshrined the soul of…). However, in this instance the quote from Shelley which Elgar inserted at the head of the Second Symphony, “Rarely, rarely comest thou, Spirit of delight”, seems more apt.

This was a supremely intelligent performance on the part of the soloist. Midori does not have the most opulent of sounds, silver rather than gold, and one wondered whether she would be capable of producing the sheer volume of sound necessary in this music. What she does have, apart from her innate musicality, is the most secure and controlled of bow arms. This may sound like a technicality. In this music though she demonstrated that bow-technique is crucial because, time and time again, it enabled her to spin the finest of lines, to control and vary tone within the most breathtaking pianissimos, to tiptoe in and enter a phrase on the merest thread of sound and, above all, to deliver the final movement’s culminating ’accompanied cadenza’ with a rapt fragility which for once made complete musical sense instead of sounding, as it sometimes can, as if the movement had outstayed its welcome. In other words, she was smart enough to play to her strengths.

Honours must go in equal measure to the LSO – this was a collective effort of the sort one hears all too rarely in concerto performances. The orchestra gave its considerable all, every player listening minutely to and dovetailing with the soloist. Mehta, not always the most interesting of conductors in the classical repertoire, is not only an excellent accompanist but also one of the great unsung Elgarians. One recalls his performances of the Cello Concerto with Jacqueline du Pré and, later, a superb First Symphony with the LPO, slow and stately as St Pancras Station (to parody Beecham’s gibe about Elgar) but radiating intense conviction. So too with the Violin Concerto; he adhered to his soloist like a Gumshoe.

At 17 minutes, the first movement was more or less as slow as Elgar and Menuhin’s famous recording, and if one were going to quibble or find fault, it would be here. This movement will certainly sustain bluffer treatment and one could claim that everything was unduly soft focus. This would be to miss the point, however, because Midori was exploring levels of quiet intensity and continuity usually glossed over in more robust and ’macho’ performances. Similarly, the slow movement drew one ever inward, Midori’s playing matched by some equally refined and soft-grained orchestral playing. The outsize Finale was the clincher to this remarkable performance. Music that can sound episodic was here full of a tenderness and whimsy which held one breathless to the last bar, rather like watching a sunset so beautiful that you want it to hang in the air and go on for ever.

In a world where the ordinary regularly gets over-hyped, this combination of soloist, orchestra and conductor cries out to be recorded in this music, preferably under studio conditions in a sympathetically warm acoustic. Given a performance of the concerto as good as this from Midori, we might yet see an Elgar cult in Japan – if David Beckham in Japan, why not Elgar. And while we’re at it, and with no disrespect whatsoever to Sir Colin Davis, would it not be an excellent idea to record Mehta and the LSO in Elgar symphonies? [Yes! – Ed.]

Earlier in the evening Midori played Mozart’s G major. A little tentatively in the first movement, then extremely slowly and very, very beautifully, and with a delightfully characterised Finale. The (uncredited) cadenzas were dramatically overlong, especially for so slight a piece. The concert opened with Leonora No.3, which was well enough played by a more or less authentically-sized LSO, the authenticity extending to hard timpani sticks, which was lacking in abandon.

The LSO’s regular roster of conductors is getting a little too predictable, and the orchestra’s upcoming season just announced is hardly likely to set the heather alight. [Mr Cooksey is Scottish! – Ed.] Basically we have heard it all – or at least most of it – before. Mehta should be invited back sooner rather than later conducting the late-Romantic repertoire, be it Elgar, the Verdi Requiem, Strauss, Bruckner and Franz Schmidt – all music about which he has something to say.

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