Vänskä’s LSO Concert Links Works by Pärt, Britten and Shostakovich

United StatesUnited States Pärt, Britten, Shostakovich:  Gil Shaham (violin), London Symphony Orchestra /  Osmo Vänskä (conductor), Barbican Hall, London. (GD)

Arvo Pärt:  Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten
Benjamin Britten:  Violin Concerto, Op. 15
Shostakovich:  Symphony No. 6 in B minor

This concert was part of the LSO’s International Violin Festival which is highlighting twelve of todays  ‘superstar’ violinists including the likes of  Isabelle Faust, Alina Ibragimova and Joshua Bell. I have noticed the ‘superstar’ glitzy rhetoric of fashion models, foot-ballers and all manner of celebrities increasingly creeping into the the world of classical music! I suppose it is all part of the ‘dumbing-down’ process – for Walter Benjamin the ‘decline of the aura’ – where all cultural objects have to ‘sell’ themselves to gain recognition!

 There was a definite theme inter-linking all the works in tonight’s concert: Part’s dedication to Benjamin Britten; Britten’s admiration of and friendship with Shostakovich – which could extend  to Pärt’s acknowledgement of the influence of Shostakovich on his own work. Like the even more played ‘Fratres’ the Britten piece, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, one of Pärt’s shorter orchestral works, has acquired a wide currency, especially as music accompanying documentaries and films depicting catastrophic events like the Nazi orchestrated Holocaust. This music has a direct emotional charge in its sublime sense of mystery and frozen time redolent of  historical aporia,  and connecting to events  like the Holocaust, which are still inimicable to any kind of rational/logical understanding or resolution. The A minor scale in five layers of tempo, the ‘waves’ of sound in the string orchestra from ppp, to the lowest fff, the ‘solitary’ bell, where all is realised with a finesse and conviction which corresponded powerfully to the strangely haunting tone of Pärt’s invention.

 There have been some quite perceptive attempts to ascribe particular meanings to Britten’s 1939 Violin Concerto, a work he subsequently revised several times. It has been suggested that the first movement’s melodic second subject has a Spanish lilt, indeed that the movement itself has a Spanish inflection. This was the suggestion of Antonio Brosa, who played the premiere of the work in 1940 and was himself Spanish. This could well be true, but this Spanish inflection is most discreet; it could just as well be an Italian or French dance theme. The suggestion that Britten was influenced by Berg’s great Violin Concerto is certainly true. There are no direct quotations but there are some umistakable subtle allusions the Berg especially in the second and final Passacaglia movement. There is certainly a link to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, with the opening timpani figure,  a rhythm taken up by bassoon and other instruments and persisting as a kind of ostinato throughout the entire work. In its range of orchestral diversity from every section of the orchestra it begins to resemble Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto as a kind of concerto for orchestra with violin obbligato. But here we must deploy ‘obbligato not in its Baroque usage but in its literal meaning as ‘indispensable’. The soloist is integral to the whole concerto. In the first movement the timpani rhythm initiates the violins soaring main theme, just as in the second subject the soloist announces a new melody accompanied by muted horns, and the movement’s coda is initiated by  the soloist again taking up the opening timpani figure. All this was well negotiated by Shaham who has played the work many times, although compared with a violinist like Janine Jensen, particularly her recording of the concerto with Paavo Jarvi and again the LSO, I thought Shaham could have varied his tone more in a concerto so full of varied contrast. Also, and throughout the concerto, I sensed a certain lack of rapport between soloist and conductor. They were always together but I missed that crucial sense of dialogue. The darting scherzo (‘Vivace’) and more relaxed trio reached virtuoso status, but in the extended cadenza which wonderfully leads into the Passacaglia finale (a real touch of genius from the young Britten) I didn’t quite hear the range of invention and contrast heard with Jensen and Britten’s soloist for his recording, Mark Lubotsky. The ten variations which form the Passacaglia went well but I didn’t really hear the underlying tension Jensen speaks of in one of her interviews. , The trombone interjections, with powerful timpani crescendos (sounding like Wotan’s music in the ‘Ring’ cycle) were strangely underpowered despite the composer’s explicit markings. The imposing ‘Alla marcia’ just before the coda – tinged with mock irony – sounded a tad bland. The coda itself, where the soloist is undecided between F natural and G flat was well realised by Shaham.  As an encore Shaham played a predictably agile and nuanced rendition of Bach’s Gavotte en Rondeau from his Partita No.3 for solo violin in E major BWV 1006.

 I don’t think I have heard much Shostakovich from Vänskä, but he has gone from strength to strength as a symphonic conductor encompassing composers as different from each other as Beethoven and the Icelandic composer Jon Leifs. So my expectations were high, especially as the Sixth is one my favourite Shostakovich symphonies.  In the long introductory ‘Largo’ I missed a sense of line, of anything like a sustained pulse.  Vänskä took around 19 minutes (which is quite swift by some standards) but his sense of tempo tended to drag making the music sound longer in duration than it actually was in reality! Also, and related, it lacked a sense brooding tension and gloom especially in the movement’s closing section. One only has to listen to recordings by the conductor of the work’s premiere, Mravinsky, or by Kondrashin and the marvellous old Reiner recording from the 40s to hear how imposing and stoically impressive this music can sound.  Also there were occasional patches of uncoordinated ensemble with some sloppy trumpet entries. The second movement was impressive for the virtuosic playing alone but it does need a more sustained grasp of the overall structure and contour. Again Mravinsky and Kondrashin are superb here.  Vänskä  took the last movement at a real ‘Presto’, the LSO strings managing the fast tempo with amazing alacrity. But as the movement progressed he made some unnecessary gear shifts which didn’t really come off. The carnivalesque  coda with boisterous flourishes and mock military rhythms, although well balance, had none of festive uninhibited and ironic vulgarity so essential to Shostakovich in this mood. I love the way in which one Russian commentator likened this ironic vulgarity in Shostakovich to the wild and raunchy dance music of that ‘Mozart of the Champs Elysees’ – Offenbach! One cannot imagine two such diametrically opposed composers; but Shostakovich, somewhat like Hegel, loved to play around musically with identity in opposites!

 Geoff Diggines




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