The LSO Chamber Orchestra’s Performances Diminished by the Conductor

14/01/2017

JS Bach, WF Bach, CPE Bach, Telemann, Haydn: LSO Chamber Orchestra, Giovanni Antonini (recorder, conductor). Milton Court Concert Hall, London, 13.1.2017. (MB)

JS Bach – Orchestral Suite no.1 in C major, BWV 1066
WF Bach – Symphony in F major, F 67
CPE Bach – Symphony in G major, Wq 182/1
Telemann – Recorder Concerto in C major, TWV 51
Haydn – Symphony no.49, La Passione

It is a rare delight to hear the LSO, even if in ‘chamber orchestral’ formation, play music from the first half of the eighteenth century. Since the death of Colin Davis, it has even been something of a rare delight to hear the orchestra in eighteenth-century music at all. (I suppose we should at least be grateful to have been spared ‘Gergiev’s Haydn’.) Moving across the road from the Barbican to Milton Court was, in such circumstances, a sensible move; it certainly ensured that a small orchestra did not sound too small. The one problem, and I am afraid it was at times well-nigh insurmountable, was the conductor, Giovanni Antonini. Frankly, the LSO – and we – deserved better.

I kept an open mind for as long as I could. If, for these ears, trained on Klemperer and Richter, the introduction to the first movement of Bach’s C major Orchestral Suite sounded light, airy, and, alas, all too short-breathed, perhaps there would be a way of challenging those ears to listen differently, to take the performance on its own terms. The problem, despite the break-neck speed that ensued, was less of tempo as such, than of the lack of space for the music to breathe. Gorgeous, bubbly, woodwind playing offered some compensation, though. A courtly, undeniably Gallic Courante fared better, as did a surprisingly vigorous first Gavotte, its companion quite the textural contrast. Counterpoint was admirably clear. Alas, Antonini conducted with all the musical awareness of a sewing machine. The Forlane impressed with its vigour too, although greater warmth from the strings – low, but thankfully some, vibrato – would have been welcome. The Minuets had a reasonable sense of character; the Bourrées were excitable, closer to Vivaldi (!) than to Bach; the Passepieds were suavely enough despatched. I listened in vain, however, for Antonini to show the slightest awareness of harmonic rhythm; and without that, Bach is lost.

The F major Symphony by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach is more of a rarity, and thus scored points on that alone. Its first and third movements were performed with a sense of the strangeness of their disjunctures, yet Antonini seemed incapable, or at least unwilling, to mould a series of rhetorical gestures into something greater than the sum of their parts. Nervously dramatic playing again offered some compensation. The intervening Andante really needed more space, less metronomic regularity, although the LSO strings sounded impressively dark. An air of galanterie was welcome in the closing pair of Menuets, but Antonini needed to dig more into the music, the prevailing impression being one of curious neutrality – as if the players were being prevented from playing.

CPE Bach’s G major Symphony, Wq 182/1 concluded the first half. The opening Allegro di molto offered greater continuity: that is partly the work itself, but was not, I think, just the work. The seeds of something Mozartian were to be heard, if one so wished – a turn of phrase, a harmonic progression – without compromise to this most individual of musical voices. The slow movement emerged stylistically similar – too much so? – with Antonini again far too static in his conception. A finale somewhere in between again had me wishing that he might take more account – some account – of harmony and its role in propelling the action. This is, after all, the composer who declared that his ‘and my deceased father’s basic principles are contrary to Rameau’s’; we need to think about what that might mean.

The C major Recorder Concerto by Telemann, TWV 51, is no masterpiece. It, however, received perhaps the most compelling performance of the evening, at least until the interminable finale. One was better advised to close one’s eyes, though, unless one wished to follow the lead of many audience members, attempting, some with greater success than others, to stifle the giggles. Even before Antonini began to play, we were treated to bizarre dance movements; once connected with his instrument, the impression was of a cross between a snake charmer and something more pornographic. It was, I suppose, a spectacle of sorts. Poor Telemann seems increasingly to attract the bizarre: a couple of years or so ago, it was Simone Kermes in a state of perplexing ecstasy. There was alert, characterful playing, especially from the orchestra, which seemed to benefit from not being conducted. In the slow movement, having given a passable impression of a baby eagle not quite managing to take flight, Antonini concentrated on his playing, the LSO’s performance sounded all the more cultivated as a result. At one point, however, I felt it necessary to stare at an emergency exit sign. Solo playing became more wayward in the Andante, Antonini seemingly not listening to the orchestra, concentrating instead on his own peculiar self-choreography. The Lang Lang of the recorder? Perhaps, but with lesser technical ability. There was undeniable virtuosity, though, to the finale. It went on and on and on, though. Until then, I should have been happy to testify to a Telemann performance that had at least not bored me.

Seemingly emboldened by that display – and cheers from a small yet vocal group of partisans – Antonini continued to inflict ‘flamboyant’ gestures on the music, in this case that of Haydn. Quite unconnected with what we heard, they might have offered amusement, but there is more than enough interest in Haydn’s music for such an ‘approach’ to be quite unnecessary. The LSO’s playing had a grave, sonorous beauty; if only Antonini had had some conception of how to phrase. In the first movement, and indeed beyond, bar followed bar, at best phrase following phrase, with no sense of a greater whole. Alert, febrile playing characterised the second movement; if only Antonini had permitted the form to fulfil its dramatic potential. The Menuet and Trio were definitely better heard than watched; if only Antonini had not stunted the dances’ lilt with such metronomic regularity. Likewise in the finale, the energy of the playing notwithstanding. I should love to hear the LSO play this symphony with another conductor, or indeed with none at all.

Mark Berry

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