United Kingdom Mozart and Shostakovich: Emanuel Ax (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 15.10.2013 (MB)
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.27 in B-flat major, KV 595
Shostakovich – Symphony no.15 in A major, op.141
No prizes for guessing which conductor I immediately associate with the LSO and Mozart. Sir Colin Davis’s shoes are impossible to fill in so many ways, but I was delighted, almost astonished, to hear the orchestra on as excellent Mozartian form as I can recall. Not, of course, that I doubt Bernard Haitink’s credentials in this repertoire, but even he would cede to Sir Colin in my affections in this case – or at least he would have done before this concert. The orchestra may have been small (ten first violins down to four double basses), but there was nothing underpowered about its performance. The opening of the first movement was crisp, with woodwind more prominent, even adamant, than one might have expected; clearly Haitink was determined that Mozart should not go excessively gentle into that good night. It might be exaggerated to consider his reading revisionist, for if it were it was with the greatest subtlety, but it was in the best sense refreshing. Moreover, this movement was definitely heard as an Allegro. Mozartian perfection, then? Alas, not quite. This is the most unforgiving of all music; every slight imperfection tells and is magnified, and so it was with Emanuel Ax’s performance. There was much to admire. From the outset, his tone was clean, and his touch impressively variegated. Even early on, though, there was some puzzling, ungainly phrasing – repeated in the recapitulation, so it was no accident. During the development section, it was the orchestra that provided most of the energy and also most of the sensuous pleasure, the woodwind, and particularly Emmanuel Laville’s oboe, simply ravishing. Returning, as it were, to the recapitulation, Ax badly smudged one run, but there was ample compensation to be had from the loving, yet never indulged second subject from the orchestra, somewhat blithely tossed away, alas, by the pianist. Mozart’s cadenza also had a degree of glibness to it, if only by comparison with what we heard from the LSO. I longed for a pianist such as Daniel Barenboim to probe beneath the surface – as, of course, orchestra and conductor did throughout.
Ax was much improved in the second movement, though his ornamentation sometimes veered dangerously close to the intrusive – and was actually eminently predictable. The truest musical rewards were once again to be heard from Haitink and the LSO; heartfelt, beautifully sonorous, above all unaffected. The finale was equally well shaped, rhythms delighting rather than hardening, as they might in lesser hands, into rigidity. If the music sounded more ebullient than half-lit, it was none the worse for that. Occasional heavy-handedness from the pianist was again more than compensated for by the subtle, sovereign command of Haitink and the quickening response of the LSO. This was some of the best Mozart playing I have heard – and that includes from the Vienna Philharmonic.
Shostakovich’s final symphony opened in at least as sprightly, at least as precise, fashion. Flute and percussion, then strings and bassoon, combined to suggest an almost Prokofiev-like magic (think of the Seventh Symphony); but then ambivalence, of a different sort from Prokofiev’s, set in, both through the offices of orchestral exactitude, in the best sense, and, of course, enigmatic quotation. What does it mean? Haitink seemed to have just the right, Shostakovich-like attitude of: ‘Don’t ask me! I’m just the humble musician.’ What a relief it was to hear Shostakovich’s music, to my mind at its best here, utterly distanced from Cold War nonsense – however Soviet-tinged the vibrato of the LSO brass might sound, both in this movement and in those strange trombone-and-tuba chords of the next. Strings were rapier-sharp. Tim Hugh’s cello solo in the slow movement was every bit as finely wrought as leader Roman Simovic’s briefer yet equally important solo contributions; indeed, though I suppose I may have missed one, I cannot recall a single solo from any member of the orchestra that was not of the very highest order. Haitink paced the movement as well as one might expect from so distinguished a Brucknerian. The strangeness of sonority and harmony registered with no need for grotesque underlining. Structure was powerfully conveyed in what, despite a well-nigh inevitable bronchial onslaught from members of the audience, was at least as masterly an account as the conductor’s celebrated Decca recording. What too often in the composer’s earlier work sounds as empty devices here and now acquired true ‘meaning’, partly and paradoxically on account of the apparent rejection by score and performance alike of ‘meaning’ as conventionally understood.
The scherzo was sardonic, brutally so, ensuring that the material’s dangerous propensity toward banality was never truly realised. Rhythms and balances were equally tight. The LSO’s percussion section, here as elsewhere, was outstanding, preparing the way for the dénouement. Hearing Wagner, if only in quotation at the opening of the final movement, made one long to hear the composer’s music from Haitink once again. Such was the rightness, even in so different a context, that I almost felt as if he were about to launch into Siegfried’s Funeral March, but no… Tone lightened, yet remained unsettled, disconcerting. Haitink’s near-absolute control, musicianly not tyrannical, and the keenness of the LSO’s response conspired together to render inevitable the emergence and course of the passacaglia, frustrated as it was to a certain extent by what at times seemed like a cough or sneeze per bar. The climax, anyway, was powerful indeed. This may be ‘good’ rather than ‘great’ music, but it was far and away the best Shostakovich performance I have heard. And the coda, when it came, proved as chilling as ever – perhaps more so.