Nikolaj Znaider and the LSO Pair Mozart and Tchaikovsky to Good Effect

20/12/2016

Mozart and Tchaikovsky: Nikolaj Znaider (violin/conductor), London Symphony Orchestra. Barbican Hall, London, 18.12.2016. (MB)

Mozart – Violin Concerto No.1 in B-flat major, KV 207; Violin Concerto No.4 in D major, KV 218

Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36

Nikolaj Znaider and the LSO will be giving three concerts of Mozart (violin concertos) and Tchaikovsky (symphonies), of which this was the first. A recording of the concertos is in the offing; it was to have been conducted by that supreme Mozartian, Sir Colin Davis, but will now be directed by Znaider himself. I say ‘directed’, but Znaider was for the most part content to leave the LSO, here very much chamber size, to play without interference. There was, to both concerto performances, a fine sense of collegiality, of chamber music, Znaider certainly the soloist in the sense of having the solo line, but in no sense assuming any position of superiority. Occasionally, I felt the music’s darker emotions a little undersold, notably in the slow movement of the Fourth Violin Concerto, but for Apollonian Mozart, this would today be difficult to beat.

The first movement of KV 207 brought spruce, variegated playing from all concerned. Znaider’s conception drew one in rather than striving to impress. (What does he have to prove, anyway?) The bass line offered a firm foundation and occasional, winning nudges. Phrases were well-shaped without sounding moulded: I could imagine Sir Colin smiling benignly on the performance. Lightness of touch certainly did not preclude depth of feeling here. Every scale, moreover, perhaps especially in the orchestral strings, was full of life, no mere figure. The Adagio was taken relatively swiftly, and was light on its feet too, but not, I think, too much. There was much beneath the beguiling surface, that surface boasting wind chords from Elysium itself. What can sometimes sound rather slight material in the finale was simply treated musically, with no attempt, thank God, to do something to it. This movement emerged effortlessly as a cousin, an equal to Mozart’s symphonies of a similar vintage. It was characterful, all the more so for not being in hock to someone else’s character.

The Fourth opened just as fresh, if anything more so. Znaider and the LSO are clearly not in the business of offering generalised Mozart, for this performance was alert to the work’s specific character, its increased sophistication. Slight agogic accents made their point very well, quite without mannerism. The rapport the soloist had with other front desks would have been palpable, even if one had not seen the visual signs. (Violins and violas were, by the way, all standing, not a practice I can imagine Davis having adopted.) The slow movement, as previously mentioned, was certainly Andante, certainly cantabile, but lacked something in the way of Mozartian shadow. The finale, though, showed playing alert to Mozart’s rhetoric, without permitting ‘mere’ rhetoric to dominate. Hints of Gallic, courtly complication were welcome, the drones very much part of that world rather than an opposing force. Le Petit Trianon, perhaps, or Il re pastore?

Znaider’s good relationship with the orchestra was just as apparent in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which he conducted again from memory. It would be difficult to say that there was anything out of the ordinary with respect to interpretation, but he and they offered a brilliantly played ‘central’ performance, which only occasionally stood in need of a firmer helping hand. The LSO brass offered harshness of opening Fate, to be assuaged (a little, at least) by the warmth of string response. I liked the general solidity to the performance, which was not to say that it was inflexible, far from it. Some, however, may well have preferred something more mercurial. Znaider’s ability to find plenty of space for the music, to remain faithful to its spirit and letter, nonetheless made a welcome change for me. And what a glorious full orchestral sound it was, even if the Barbican’s acoustic reminded us poignantly of London’s desperate need, now denied by our political masters, for a new hall.

Depth of string tone, not always a strength of London orchestras, was again a great advantage in the second movement, as was woodwind colour. Kinship with ballet was apparent, without collapsing the symphony into something which it is not. There was some magical, hushed playing to be heard too, full of suspense, maybe even tentative hope. Predictably splendid pizzicato was to be heard in the third movement: not splendid for its own sake, though, for it was always directed, and kept on a commendably tight (not too tight) rein by Znaider. The music actually sounded strikingly modern, which in many ways it is: consider Stravinsky’s love for Tchaikovsky. There was an equally splendid piquancy from the LSO woodwind, pointing towards Petrushka, the brass not irrelevant here either. It was Eugene Onegin, however, that came most strongly to mind, another kinship seemingly acknowledged and enjoyed.

Taken attacca, the opening of the finale brought a smile to my face, but not for long, for there remained darker forces at play. There was something, quite rightly, ambiguous about the rejoicing we heard – not unlike Tchaikovsky’s own conception, quoted in the programme: ‘If within yourself you find no reason for joy, look at others. Get out among the people … find happiness in the joys of others.’ Onegin was now in Petersburg. What was certainly not in doubt was the magnificence of the LSO’s playing – and not just when extrovert.

Mark Berry

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