United Kingdom Messiaen, Bartók, Tchaikovsky, Baiba Skride (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Tugan Sokhiev (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 30.4.2015 (AS)
Messiaen: Les offrandes oubliées – méditation symphonique
Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 2, BB117
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36
As a result of his ten-year association with the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse the Russian-Ossetian conductor Tugan Sokhiev has clearly developed a deep understanding of French music. A few months ago he conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in an extraordinarily sensitive performance of Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, and in this programme, his first appearance with the LSO, he showed similar qualities in Messiaen’s Les offrandes oubliées.
Although this is an early work, written when the composer was 22 years old and had just graduated from the Paris Conservatoire, it is already instantly recognisable as an example of his mature style. Though only a few minutes in length, this meditation on Christ’s suffering has three sharply defined sections, depicting in turn feelings of sorrow, angry despair and compassion – slow/very fast/slow. It formed an unusual but effective piece to begin the programme.
A few days earlier the Japanese violinist Midori, who was to have been the soloist in Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto had had to withdraw on medical advice, and her place was taken at short notice by the Latvian-born artist, Baibe Skride. As Skride made clear in a programme note, she has played this work on a number of occasions, and her confident, very positive approach to it was apparent from the very first notes she essayed. She is capable of making a big sound, and her technique is impressive, though in the concerto’s first movement at least the actual tone quality that she drew from her Stradivarius instrument was not particularly beguiling. The impression was of a strong but disciplined personality at work. Skride had the advantage of playing with (or sometimes legitimately against) a superbly clear and detailed orchestral contribution from Sokhiev and the LSO.
In the concerto’s Andante second movement both soloist and the orchestra’s string section produced some lovely, soulful playing, but this was not achieved at the expense of clarity of execution, which was exemplary. And in the last movement Skride spun her solo lines with brilliance and clarity, thus providing an effective commentary over and above the LSO’s highly rhythmic, sometimes appropriately bumptious rendering of the orchestral part.
Throughout the first paragraphs of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony it seemed as if we were to hear a fairly straight, clear-cut account of the work. Nothing wrong with that, of course, though a few atypical fluffs in the LSO’s brass section were a little worrying. But then, quite suddenly, it was as if Sokhiev had decided that enough was enough, and that he needed to inject more life into the playing and more individuality in the performance, for he started to attempt a few more expressive devices.
Yet this was clearly not enough. He put down his baton, stopped time-beating as such, knowing that the LSO could provide clarity of execution without his help, and began to shape the music with all manner of unusual gestures – a flick of the fingers here, a wild, windmill movement of his arms elsewhere, sometimes merely a nod or wag of the head, or even statuesque immobility for a second or two. It was an impressive demonstration of communication and control, for the playing became much warmer and richer in personality. It was notable that the return of the brass fanfares at the end of the movement sounded quite different than before, and this time there were no slips. Was this merely showmanship on Sokhiev’s part? I don’t think so, for every gesture seemed to have real meaning for the players.
This unusual dialogue between conductor and orchestra continued throughout a touchingly tender second movement and a fast, softly executed scherzo, with a bouncy trio. Only at the beginning of the finale did Sokhiev take up his baton again to ensure a whip-crack start, but by now the orchestra knew what he wanted and produced its best for him in some thrillingly virtuosic playing. The audience’s response was predictably enthusiastic, and to judge from the positive reactions of orchestral members they too had enjoyed the conductor’s creative leadership.