Concert Review

Maazel at 70: works by Maazel, Ravel & Bartok, LSO, Barbican 16 February 2000

What do you do when you can't celebrate a composer's anniversary? You celebrate a great conductor's, of course. Lorin Maazel is 70 this year and the first of the LSO's four concerts to honour this event coupled the UK premier of Maazel's own Music for Violincello and Orchestra with show pieces by Ravel and Bartok. The evening was a triumph on two counts: firstly, that Lorin Maazel has lost none of his panache as a vivid and intoxicating interpreter of twentieth century music, and secondly, that the LSO showed itself to be the Rolls Royce of orchestras, and not just any Rolls Royce, but a vintage one. They clearly enjoyed every moment playing for Maazel.

The first half was devoted entirely to Maazel's cello work, played by the great Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom it was written. The work is divided into eight sections, with three bridges (for solo cello, cello and percussion and orchestra) placed between them at irregular intervals. Maazel wrote in the programme notes that the work may have been subtitled 'Dreamscapes' and there is certainly a hypnotic element to this work. There are moments of orchestral isolation where solo instruments (a violin, or a clarinet, or a cello) carry the main themes of the piece forward. In parts, the work is masterly at creating the illusion of beauty only for this image to be curtailed by the violent foreboding of the real world - in this case the intervention of roaring brass or scuttling woodwind.

If the work has an influence it is probably a Bartokian one. The string ostinatos, principally on the cellos, appeared to have been clearly borrowed from the Miraculous Mandarin, a piece we were to hear later. If the cello part is indebted to Shostakovich this is no real problem, for Maazel is able to weave lines of pure beauty out of the instrument, and a low threnody on cellos was beautifully minimalist. The work has a circularity to its structure: it begins with a solo violin playing harmonics of ever increasing tension, and concludes with the cello ending the piece in calmness and tenderness. In between, the cello is clearly the protagonist, but ends up the victor. This is no mean achievement after the powerful Bridge that precedes the ending of the work. Here the orchestra is at full volume, the strings reaching ever higher to achieve their heart-searing cry. It is probably the most inspired piece of the score, and a shock after the orchestral stasis that dominates the first 10 minutes of the work The LSO's playing was committed through out and the work probably benefited from the playing of it's dedicatee.

The second half was devoted to Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole and Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin Suite. The Ravel was a performance of vivid colour - the strings of the LSO darkly sensuous and the woodwind deliciously scented in Spanish mist . It was also a performance of some breadth in the early movements which allowed the counterpoint of the solo strings to develop as they should. In the Malagueña quarter notes never became heavy. In the Habanera there was a delightful laziness to the playing. The Feria was breathtaking, the LSO following Maazel's fiery tempo like rampaging horses.

The Bartok produced some miraculous playing from the LSO. The performance was at once expressive and deeply sensuous, especially in the Dance of the Young Girl. The barbaric ostinatos of the opening prelude were fabulously played , woodwind and brass shrieking at the top of their register. The articulation in the final pages, with massed strings rushing to the finish, was a sight to behold. On this showing, the LSO showed itself to be the greatest orchestra in the world.

Marc Bridle


Maazel at 70 continues with concerts on 17 February (Maazel, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky), on 20 February with Mahler's Resurrection Symphony and on 22 February with Strauss's Symphonia domestica.

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