United Kingdom Maxwell Davis, Brahms, Walton: Janine Jansen (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor), , Barbican, London, 30.1.2014 (GDn)
Maxwell Davis: Fanfare: Her Majesty’s Welcome
Brahms: Violin Concerto
Walton: Symphony No. 1
Antonio Pappano is only an occasional collaborator with the London Symphony, but he works well with the orchestra. He delivers plenty of fire and passion, and is often extreme with his tempos and rubato. The orchestra, by contrast, maintains an even style, following closely his often abrupt changes of tempo and mood, and without ever compromising their high technical standards of intonation, tone quality and ensemble. At its best, and that’s usually in the faster music, the result is a seamless unity between the dynamism from the podium and the more measured expertise of the players. Occasionally, the quieter music can seem laboured, but even then possible tensions come across more as constructive dialectic.
The concert opened with a fanfare from Peter Maxwell Davis, Her Majesty’s Welcome. Unlike his previous royalty-themed work, the sanity of the monarch was not addressed in any detail here. Instead, the work fulfilled a commission from the LSO for a collaborative project with the LSO On Track Young Musicians. This outreach project started life as part of London’s Olympic bid and involves East London school children in performances with the LSO players. Max provided the ideal work for the occasion, or rather the previous occasion, in 2012, when the Queen was present. The young wind players were arranged behind the orchestra and there were also two antiphonal brass choirs on the balcony. The brass and percussion sections of the LSO got things going with some martial snare drum followed by some regal, if densely voiced, chords from the trumpets and trombones. These dense harmonies were presumably designed to hide any wayward tuning from the young players, but, in fact, the harmonic side of the music was a source of continual interest, despite its density of sound. And the performance was a good one, the young woodwind players able to hold their own against the batteries of brass, and the ensemble well balanced throughout. An occasional piece, and a highly functional one too, but without any hint of condescension to the young players.
Janine Jansen is an ideal soloist for the Brahms Violin Concerto. Despite her slight frame, she has impressive power and projection behind her tone, and when the music calls for it she can make a real impact with heavy downbow accents. The motif that opens the first subject theme in the first movement theme has rarely sounded as incisive and as dramatic as it did this evening. But Brahms also calls for some intense lyricism, especially in the second subject, which she also delivers convincingly. Surprisingly, there were a few intonation problems early on in the first movement, a result perhaps of some very daring portamento. Jansen will deftly slide up to a note, teasing the audience as to when, or even if, it will arrive. Once or twice the results came out flat. But in general this was a technically proficient and impressively dramatic reading. Jansen often employs a hard, wiry tone in louder passages, but it is clearly a conscious decision rather than an affliction, as the rounder, mellower sounds she produces elsewhere demonstrate. The orchestral strings were on fine form. Jansen’s gritty first subject motif is soon repeated in the orchestra, and the violins were easily able to match her punchy rendition. The woodwinds were a little wayward at the start of the second movement, a result perhaps of Pappano’s very slow tempo and mannered phrasing, but all was redeemed from the soloist’s first entry. And the finale was a tour de force, snappy and dynamic, but also well controlled by soloist, conductor and orchestra alike.
The London Symphony and Walton’s First go back a long way. This was the orchestra that gave the famous incomplete performances of the work in the long interregnum while the composer worked out what to do about the finale. The piece is quite a workout for the players, and it’s an excellent showpiece to demonstrate the LSO’s fine form. Pappano’s approach is controversial in a couple of respects, particularly with regard to the quiet interludes in the first movement. He tends to slow these right down, and to phrase very pedantically with overt rubato. He also makes a very big thing out of the long build-ups, especially the one that leads into the recapitulation of the first movement. The intention is laudable, but most of this symphony doesn’t need that level of intervention: Walton himself has put in all the crescendo that the build-ups need through increasing harmonic density and orchestral voicing. The slow movement also felt over-shaped, with Pappano clearly intent on emphasising the progression towards the more intense passages near the end. On the other hand, the scherzo and finale were just fantastic. The intensity and drive that Pappano brought to these movements was ideal, and was matched by the clean, precise, and always energetic playing of the orchestra.
There were so many great things in the orchestral playing here, it’s difficult to know where to begin. The horns and violas at the beginning, clear and focussed, but with delicacy too. Nigel Thomas seemed to have little difficulty with what must be one of the most demanding timpani parts in the repertoire. Philip Cobb’s trumpet solo at the end, floating across the orchestra with just a hint of brass band vibrato, was finer than on any recording I’ve heard. In fact, the coda to the last movement was spot on in every respect, and those gunshot staccatos that end were devastating in their power and their unquestionable finality. Despite some of Pappano’s indulgences earlier on, this was a fine and memorable performance of the greatest symphony the UK has yet produced.
This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be accessed online until 6 February 2014 at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03s67gk