United Kingdom George Stevenson, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev: Simone Lamsma (violin), London Symphony Orchestra / Gianandrea Noseda (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 10.4.2022. (KMcD)
George Stevenson – Vanishing City
Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto in D major
Prokofiev – Symphony No.5 in B-flat major
Although composer George Stevenson is Scottish, this superb concert under the masterly direction of conductor Gianandrea Noseda, was essentially an all-Russian affair. And whilst one is reminded daily of the horrific Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is important that only those artists close to Putin’s regime are cancelled, and not the entire output of Russian art and music. The Metropolitan Opera New York’s current social media campaign hits the nail on the head: Cancel Putin, Not Pushkin. Something we can all get behind.
Inspired by the valiant efforts of the inhabitants of Leningrad during WWII to scale the city’s most prominent buildings and camouflage their golden domes – which acted as reconnaissance points for enemy aircraft – Stevenson’s Vanishing City is a kaleidoscopic five-minute explosion of musical audacity, that brilliantly evokes both the danger and heroism of that time. Expertly scored, and revealing a wealth of harmonic invention, this was a perfect curtain-raiser for the rest of the concert.
The originally-billed soloist for Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, Janine Jansen, regrettably had to withdraw as she was still recuperating from surgery, so Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma gallantly agreed to stand in at very short notice. Lamsma is a highly-regarded artist, having garnered excellent notices from her performances with some of the most high-ranking orchestras across the globe, and on the evidence of this coruscating interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s homage to the violin it is not hard to see why.
Overflowing with exuberance, Lamsma stamped her personality across the whole score. The extended first movement, which in lesser hands can often meander due to its lack of contrasts, here held the listener spellbound. Warmth, vitality, and energy suffused her playing, which even at times dared to exude a sultry feel. The first movement’s cadenza not only highlighted her faultless technique, but her superb interpretative qualities as well – and despite producing virtuosic fireworks, none of her playing was showy or ostentatious – it all stemmed from the natural ebb and flow of the piece.
There was an unhurried, almost elegiac feel to the second movement’s Canzonetta, its melancholic theme faultlessly traced by Lamsma, mirrored superbly by the London Symphony Orchestra’s attentive woodwind section. Indeed it is rare that both the soloist and orchestra inexorably breathe as one, yet this musical chemistry was evident between both throughout. Lamsma was playful, skittish almost, in the vivacious third movement, setting the seal on an exemplary interpretation.
Written in 1944, and first performed in Moscow the following year, Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony is a bold, optimistic work, and reflective of events unfolding around the time of its composition. The Nazis were in retreat, and victory for Russia and the Allies was within sight, so it is hardly a surprise Prokofiev’s symphony was viewed as a heroic musical testament to the Russian people at that first performance. Of course, like his compatriot Shostakovich, ambiguity often lay at the core of their musical output given they had to stay on the right side of the authorities, especially Stalin, so it is not often wise to take their music at face value.
Prokofiev said of his symphony: ‘I thought of it as a work glorifying the human spirit. I wanted to sing of mankind free and happy: his strength, his generosity and the purity of his soul.’ We will never know exactly what he means by his reference to being ‘free and happy’ – free of Nazi occupation, or Stalin’s oppressiveness? Or it could be both.
There was certainly plenty of optimism and heroism in Noseda’s approach to the symphony, and he conducted a pitch-perfect account, with all sections of the LSO blazing at every given opportunity. He allowed the first movement to unfold spaciously at an unhurried pace, each musical idea coming to the fore, while relishing in Prokofiev’s brilliant orchestration. The no-holds barred coda, replete with pounding, abrasive percussion certainly set the pulses racing.
There was a sense of drive and forward propulsion in a fast and furious second movement, to which the orchestra responded meticulously – perfectly accomplished runs in the strings, and braying brass added to the underlying sense of menace that pervades this movement. Noseda let the melodious third movement sing, revelling in its lyricism, going on to drive the final movement to its inexorable climax. All sections of the LSO distinguished themselves, but special mention must go to Chris Richards for his expert clarinet playing at the start of the Allegro giocoso.
This was an exemplary performance, luckily recorded for release on the orchestra’s own label: LSO Live.