S&H Concert review

Shostakovich & Mahler: Viktoria Mullova (vln), Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen, RFH, 17 April, 2001 (MB)

This concert suffered more from comparison than many I have attended in recent weeks. Salonen, a fine Mahler conductor, and too little heard in London nowadays, was thrilling in Mahler's First symphony - yet the performance, as a whole, was neither as electrifying nor as finely tuned as one I heard last March with Riccardo Chailly and the LSO . Viktoria Mullova suffered from 'Oistrakh syndrome' in the Shostakovich First Violin Concerto; hers was a performance that captured the prismatic energy of the piece but at a high price - a soulless marriage of virtuosity over temperament.

The Mahler suffered initially from poor articulation - those breathless opening notes on high strings flat in tone and lazily projected, the horns reserved and nervous rather than bold and brilliant. Woodwind throughout the first movement were not as well fashioned as usual and there was an ambience of introspection about the development which reflected a shallow childhood rather than an idyllic one. The scherzo and trio were better - almost as if the performance had suddenly left port and was blissfully sailing across the ocean. The famous third movement - with its parody of Frère Jacques - started suitably unobtrusively with an understated double bass solo but thereafter developed a superbly lumbering gait - more rustic and vulgar in its tonality than the refinement of the Philharmonia strings normally allow. It made the sudden eruption of the finale more austere and frenzied than normal - the power of the brass was indescribably titanic, the string figurations were dashed off with brilliance and clarity, the woodwind were barbaric in their phrasing. The momentum was hysterical, the end triumphant.

Mullova's Shostakovich was as noticeable for the thrilling accompaniment as it was for this soloist's supremely melodic line. Few violinists have such purity of tone above the stave as Mullova and throughout this performance one was spellbound by the sheer brilliance of her intonation. This is an important element of the Shostakovich - but it is not by any means the over-riding one. She missed the elements of introspection which haunt the opening Nocturne and the Passacaglia suffered from a brightness of colour, which didn't quite marry with the creeping disconsolation from the orchestra's low strings. However, this was possibly the most sheerly brilliant account of the solo line I have heard - in the scherzo she was demonic with breathtaking bow control, and in the magnificent cadenza she overcame every technical obstacle Shostakovich hurls at the soloist with unnerving ease. Hearing the plangency of Oistrakh on a recent BBC release revealed what was missing from Mullova's performance but there can be no doubt this was a tour de force which thrilled the full house.

Marc Bridle

See also Mullova & Salonen in Shostakovich No.1 Concerto at Porvoo Festival in Finland (Editor)

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