S&H Concert Review

Strauss Don Quixote; Beethoven Symphony No 2 LSO/Ozawa with Bashmet & Rostropovich Barbican, London. 2 November 00 (CF)

The line-up of participants looked as enticing on paper as it turned out to be in performance, but before getting to the eagerly anticipated main course of the evening, Ozawa and the LSO gave an impressively slick account of Beethoven's second symphony. Ozawa (at a still boundingly energetic 65) breathes and physically radiates his phrasing, for like other diminutive conductors before him (Toscanini and Solti spring to mind) what he lacks in stature he makes up for in body language. If anything he over-phrases and shapes too much, thus smoothing the brutal edges to Beethoven's louder dynamics. Only on two occasions did the LSO manage to shake off his refined control and give their all to a Beethovenian fortissimo, in the codas to the outer movements. Ozawa's tempi do not hang around, his slow movements flow, the allegros are impetuous and he demanded (and got) virtuosic playing from an on-form LSO, with memorable solos from woodwinds and horns.

After the interval the Barbican's platform was stretched to capacity from piccolo to wind machine for a superb account of Don Quixote. The playing was virtually flawless, the ensemble of this extremely complex work impeccable. It could have been a semi-staged performance, for Rostropovich's rather bemused facial expressions embody not only musically, but also physically, the tragically mad old Spanish knight, even if the swarthily handsome Bashmet is the antithesis of his pot-bellied sidekick, Sancho Panza. Both men, in their respective idiomatic portrayals, inter-acted with one another from opposite sides of Ozawa's podium, from which the conductor gave meticulously controlled direction from memory - though why he needed an empty music stand before him all evening was a mystery.

The tone poem's variations needed no reference to the programme for an explanation of each episode as the saga unfolded - windmills, bleating sheep, bored snoring, an air-borne journey, villagers, priests were all clearly portrayed. The end was breathtaking. At 73, Rostropovich's playing is as fine as ever. He allowed Quixote's soul to slip away to a final descending glissando (no ascent to heaven for him), followed by the quietest pianissimo from an orchestra's strings you'll ever hear to provide a cushion of sound for principal clarinet Andrew Marriner's wonderfully understated motif of the old knight, before the final chords, notoriously hard to tune but last night spot-on, brought this memorable performance to a satisfying close.

Christopher Fifield

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