Outstanding Performances from Leonidas Kavakos, the LSO and Daniel Harding

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Grime, Prokofiev and Strauss: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), London Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Harding (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 18.2.2018. (MB)

Grime – Virga
Prokofiev – Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor Op.63
Strauss – Eine Alpensinfonie Op.64

A wonderful concert. Without being didactic – nothing wrong with that, far from it – in its programming, it permitted connections to be made, if one would, whilst concentrating on performing and interpretative excellence. If I have heard better live performances of either Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto or Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, then I must have forgotten them. That seems unlikely.

First, in a programme that more or less corresponded to the traditional, yet now quite rare, overture-concerto-symphony format – it was actually never quite so ‘traditional’ as some like to claim – came Helen Grime’s Virga. Commissioned by the LSO for its UBS Sound Adventures Scheme and first performed more than ten years ago in 2007, Virga takes its name, to quote John Fallas’s excellent programme note, from ‘precipitation that falls from a cloud but evaporates before reaching the ground’. I do not know whether you will believe me – I hope so, dear reader – but I thought of raindrops whilst hearing the piece (for the first time), prior to reading the note immediately afterwards. Indeed, I thought, almost saw, droplets falling or travelling not so much in both as in many directions. Immediately, that is, after an opening éclat which must surely have offered particular appeal to one of the piece’s early advocates: no less than Pierre Boulez. The precision both of work and performance under Daniel Harding would surely have appealed to him too; it sounded not un-Gallic, and indeed not without a little Russianness either. (I do not think it was just the coming of Prokofiev that had me think that.) However, there was something intriguingly Germanic, a little Germanic out-of-water perhaps, to an almost Romantic cello melody, still more so its violin (Mahlerian?) successor, heard without accompaniment. Messianesque tuned percussion incited a Boulezian sense of controlled delirium – or, perhaps, rather the sense that such a state might be around the corner. I mention other composers not because I found the music in any sense derivative, quite the contrary. But just to place it, as I indeed placed it for myself, when hearing it for the first time. Harding and the LSO shaped it beautifully, but this was music, ‘poetic’ in a far from un-Romantic sense, which permitted of such shaping. I very much look forward to hearing it again – and indeed to the LSO’s new commission from the composer, to be heard later this year, conducted by Simon Rattle.

The opening solo of the Prokofiev concerto is surprisingly difficult to bring off. It needs to be direct yet inviting, anything but fussy and yet – a frustratingly vague term, I know – ‘expressive’. Those things it certainly was in Leonidas Kavakos’s performance; it sounded the easiest thing in the world, as deceptive and yet as necessary an impression as if the melody were Mozart’s. Somehow, without my always being quite sure how, the orchestra and conductor seemed always to complement Kavakos’s playing, as his did theirs. This was clearly a meeting of minds and, I think, of souls too. There was an unusual sense of the ‘Allegro’ as well as of the more common ‘moderato’ of the first movement’s tempo marking, greatly to its benefit. It was flexible, yet directed: flexibly directed, one might say. There was darkness too, without exaggeration: a world of fairy-tales, perhaps, yet we know how deep such tales delve into our psyches, individual and collective. Dead-centred, whether in a single line or double-stopping, Kavakos’s tone was surely a joy in itself, yet there was no ‘in itself’ to it. His counterpoint blended perfectly with that of the orchestra’s soloists, every one of them first-rate.

Egyptian cotton, rather than silk, was my first thought concerning the soundworld of the slow movement, often sentimentalised, yet not here. The pulsating ‘accompaniment’ did all that could be asked of it and more; so did the hemiolas it helped create. Kavakos’s vibrato, the length of his bowing, his fingering, all were perfectly chosen and varied; and yet again, it sounded so easy. (It most certainly is not!) I think I even preferred this to Heifetz. Music and performance alike proved soulful, communicative, yet never narcissistic. Form, once again, was vividly, even magically communicated by all. The finale, taken attacca, offered just the right degree of contrast: very much the next and final chapter. It had – something about which I have been thinking quite a bit recently – very much the character and dynamism of a finale. That might sound a truism, but I do not think it is; it certainly did not seem so in a performance of such distinction. And yet, it was very much the particularity of this finale, castanets and all. The side-slipping ‘simplicity’ of the third movement from the Sonata for Two Violins, op.56, collegially given with LSO leader, Roman Simovic, made for the perfect encore.

Richard Strauss’s music and indeed his æsthetic seem to me all the more necessary by the day. His defence, a musical defence, of art and of music in particular are just what a world, descending further daily into abject barbarism, needs. And of course Strauss knew very much about that – not just after 1933, but over the four-year period of writing this symphony, 1911-15. The darkness, here visual as well as aural, in which the symphony’s ‘Nacht’ opens is, or should be something very special: materialist, yes, and with a Nietzschean spirituality born out of anti-Christian materialism. So it was here. Harding’s way with the opening material intrigued me greatly: more flowing than one often hears, Wagnerian with its unendliche Melodie. I liked it very much. What grew out of it was elemental, magnificent, yet never pompous. It breathed the air of Strauss as much as of Garmisch; it spoke not only of ‘Nature’ in the way that some think it does, pictorially. Nor was the music unduly shoehorned into conceptions, often irrelevant, of what a symphony ‘should’ be. It made its own way, more a symphonic poem, perhaps, certainly sui generis: all the better for it. Paths opened up – and closed – before one’s ears; this was a musical ascent, not just a musical recreation of an ascent.

If I say that I found the performance captivated me still more than one from Bernard Haitink with this same orchestra several years ago, that should give an indication of quite how highly I esteemed it. The LSO certainly sounded warmer, or at least the Barbican acoustic did, and I do not think it was just that. For ‘symphonic’ need not, should not, imply a lack of attention to colour, of which there was as much to appreciate here as in the pieces by Grime and Prokofiev. Fragments from Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier – not literally from those works, but ‘as if’… – dissolved before our aural imagination, just as they had in Virga. Indeed, that coupling came to seem all the more inspired in retrospect. Then Die Frau ohne Schatten came into earshot, above all progressions that might well have come from there – even if, again, they did not. To put it another way, this was not just Strauss’s Alpine Symphony; it was most definitely Strauss.

Olivier Stankeiewicz’s oboe solo, exquisitely moving, made me long to hear him in Strauss’s concerto for that instrument. Indeed, at times, the composer’s ‘Indian summer’ did not sound so distant. At other times, though, quite rightly, it seemed a world away; there was a battle to be fought right here, right now. These are very particular Straussian phantasmagoria here; so they sounded, relished yet thoroughly integrated by Harding and his players. In the Epilogue – Karajan used to say that he conducted the work only for this – everything mattered. Above all, Strauss mattered – more than ever. The lamps were going out all over Europe, across the world. I think we all knew or at least felt what Sir Edward Grey (may have) said next. And yet, there was hope of a sort. For this work offers the best of tests. You cannot really believe in Strauss if you do not believe in it. (You cannot even really have listened to it, I should argue.) If you do not believe in Strauss, can you really believe in music? At any rate, if you do not believe in music, especially now, may God help you.

Mark Berry

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