S&H Concert Review

Pärt, Prokofiev & Shostakovich: LSO, Antonio Pappano, Barbican 28 January 2001 (MB)


It must be said from the outset that this extraordinary concert owed as much to an inspired conductor as it did to an orchestra on quite glorious form. I don't think I have ever heard the LSO play as well as they did here - better than they were for Chailly last year in a magnificent Mahler 1, better even than they were for Rattle in an incandescent Mahler 9. It was great music making because there is a love affair going on here which possibly has no equal in the music world today.

Antonio Pappano has charisma in abundance and the LSO, particularly the strings, muster all they can to charm him. Hearing Arvo Pärt's evocative and haunting Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten illustrated this perfectly. A work which on first hearing can sound like a luscious dreamscape in sound, but afterwards sounds repetitive and brittle, was here reinvented. I doubt the work has ever received a performance as gratuitously beautiful as this with high strings arching like the smoothest marbled contours and low strings (cellos in particular) breathing, almost purring, like a sleeping lover. The canvas of sound was absolutely extraordinary with a purity to the sound that left me both stunned and mesmerised. Each member of the orchestra played as a soloist (aided in part by some beautiful free bowing at the work's climax), and yet each achieved a unity of response that was sublime.

Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony was given a performance of biting drama. Whilst a Russian audience would be shocked by the opulent sound (no acidic woodwind or yelping brass here) this was much more than a Karajanesque exercise in orchestral precision and beauty. Pappano's view of this work is similar to Karajan's but the difference is entirely or otherwise in the scale of the tension. Pappano built up the first movement's climax with awesome power, rather like the heat you feel before the apocalyptic explosion of a simmering volcano. When the climaxes emerged they had torrential power but they were sustained and controlled with a master's grip. The sound exploded into the auditorium like a pryoclastic cloud. The second movement scherzo was sardonic as well as bitter, brutal as well as savage, the LSO strings stabbing bows at their instruments like daggers one moment and creating a swirling waltz the next in the third movement allegretto. The finale had a brooding danger to the opening andante, and a grimness that was always apparent despite some superlatively light fingered woodwind playing and bustling strings. The impact of the final chord was all the more dramatic for the contrasts that Pappano had so carefully constructed beforehand.

Sandwiched between these two works the LSO's concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik, was the soloist in Prokofiev's lyrical First Violin Concerto. I found the first movement a slightly bland affair, but this may have had more to do with the comparative sparseness of Prokofiev's writing than anything indifferent this poetic soloist had to say about the work. Barantschik does not possess the biggest of sounds, but in the upper registers he has intensely pure intonation and was able to draw a spellbinding picture of this work's crystalline beauties. The LSO were incredibly responsive and one sensed a real dialogue going on between orchestra and soloist.

Antonio Pappano is growing into a conductor of genuine greatness. Should he find Covent Garden too much of a chore I hope the LSO will snap him up. Between them, they already offer one of the greatest musical partnerships in the world.

Marc Bridle

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