Refined Berg, Rustic Mahler from Kavakos and Bychkov

29/11/2012

 Berg, Mahler: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Semyon Bychkov (conductor), Barbican Hall, London 26.11.2012 (CD)

Berg: Violin Concerto (1935)
Mahler: Symphony No 1 in D Major

This concert was originally planned to couple Mahler’s First symphony with an LSO and Barbican joint commission – the première of a violin concerto by AArgentine composer, Osvaldo Golijov. This new work, however, apparently was not finished in time for this performance – the third such postponement – and the Berg concerto was substituted instead.

The concerto represents Berg’s memorial to Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler, whose death from polio at the age of 18 spurred the composer to complete a commission from Louis Krasner, who premiered the work in 1936.

Leonidas Kavakos achieved a highly effective balance between expression of the strong emotions in a score with enormous personal significance for Berg and achievement of a coherent overall musical experience. The playing was by turn austere, anguished, fiery and serene with all these elements integrated into a satisfying whole. The second movement with its cadenza-like Allegro moving into the closing Adagio was especially effective. Kavakos’s playing was technically assured throughout with no hint of inappropriate virtuoso display. Bychkov and the LSO provided sensitive accompaniment with fine contributions wind and brass soloists and Phillip Cobb on first trumpet particularly notable.

The encore, a Bach Sarabande, was gorgeous: flowing and with a highly expressive tone quality maintained with minimal use of vibrato.

Bychkov’s approach to the Mahler was clear early in the opening movement: this was a performance which would emphasise the rustic elements in Mahler’s score at the expense of all others and which would provide manufactured spectacle rather than a sense of naturally generated drama. The opening string chord lacked mystery and the woodwind interjections came across as plain rather than endearing. The offstage brass, later in the movement, were rather too ‘present’ through wide open stage doors. The measured pace, effective at first, came to seem leaden footed after a while and Bychkov failed to build a real sense of excitement as the movement progressed towards its climax.

The approach worked rather better in the middle movements with the lumbering rhythms of the Ländler well handled. The double bass solo at the outset of the third movement was nicely projected and the movement included the most sensitive playing during the symphony with effectively managed rubato throughout.

The opening of the finale was appropriately stormy with a real sense of menace and drive and the tranquility when the storm subsided achieved a contrasting sense of calm and stillness. Again, however, Bychkov was unable to build tension and excitement naturally and the closing section of the movement, whilst superficially striking, also came across as somewhat mechanical and forced.

The LSO played well enough throughout but, presumably constrained by Bychkov, seemed unwilling to generate their full range of tone colour.

Overall, this was a disappointing performance of the symphony, with a rather one dimensional view from Bychkov of a piece where one would expect that the LSO would have much more to offer.

Carl Dowthwaite

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