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S & H Concert Review
Scriabin, Szymanowski, Webern, Bartok, Christian Tetzlaff (vln), London Symphony Chorus & Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, Barbican, 17th October 2002 (AR)

Le Poème de l'extase
SZYMANOWSKI Violin Concerto No 1
WEBERN Six Pieces
BARTOK The Miraculous Mandarin - Ballet

Boulez’ rather reserved reading of Scriabin’s Le Poème de l'extase gave this sensuous work a classical repose and elegance. Scriabin made it clear that the ‘ecstasy’ that this work evokes could be of both a spiritual and sexual nature; as the composer put it - "An ocean of cosmic love encloses the world." Boulez never milked the emotional aspects of this score, indeed his reading could be described as cerebral rather than sexual. However, far from negating the emotional impact, the ecstatic element of the work shines through with enormous force. His very coolness of approach actually made the closing climatic moments all the more powerful as the sounds soared to a breathtaking intensity. The LSO trumpets and trombones had the exact cutting, brittle attack that this work demands, whilst the violin solo of orchestra leader Gordan Nikolitch was truly voluptuous and seductive.

The genesis of Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto was the poem May Night by the Polish writer Micinsky. Throughout this single movement concerto, there is an intense interplay between soloist and orchestra, almost competitive at times. The opening of the work evokes Ravel, with its transparent and sparkling use of harp, piano, metallic percussion, all interjected with woodwind motifs. The heavier orchestral sections, on the other hand, seemed to recall the lushness of Scriabin.

Soloist Christian Tetzlaff’s playing transcends the merely beautiful. He plays with exquisite precision and versatility, running through a whole gamut of sounds from a razor sharp, almost acidic tone, sliding easily into a graceful, soft and warmer lilt. His playing seemed effortless, floating between these sound worlds of hazy Impressionism and passionate Romanticism. It was imaginative programme planning to have this concerto echoing the concert’s opening work.

The glittering cadenza really allowed him to show off his stunning versatility, and the orchestra responded to this virtuosity with equal fervour and attack. Tetzlaff is already one of the great violinists and as with all great playing, the work seemed too short - one longed for more.

The Weber Six Pieces could almost be described as Boulez’ party piece. He has conducted this minimalist work many times and directs it with the utmost economy and clarity. Although the cycle lasts for a mere ten minutes, the score is so compressed and concentrated that it gives the illusion of being a much longer work. The LSO changed mood and tone constantly and these pieces were crisply executed with admirable precision. This performance also highlighted the tension between sounds and silences, and the audience listened to the work with rapt attention - and mercifully no coughing. A memorable performance.

Boulez’ conducting of Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin was a model of perfection. His unerring grasp of Bartok’s complex tempi, combined with his unmannered conducting style, realised with great clarity the composer’s multifaceted, manic drama.

While the playing was uniformly fine from all sections of the orchestra, of particular note were the ominous clarinet cadenzas and the raucous slide-trombone glissandos. The percussion played with great aplomb and fervour and the LSO Chorus gave a suitably ghostly and unnerving contribution. The closing double basses had a disturbing sound leaving one feeling eviscerated and empty. This was a high frequency performance with no holds barred. Boulez and the LSO were at their very best.

I have heard concert broadcasts of Boulez conducting this revolutionary work with both the BBC SO and the Berlin Philharmonic but his performance with the LSO outstripped both for its sheer dramatic bite and febrile playing. It is a pity that Boulez’ LSO Barbican performances were not being recorded for the LSO’s own CD label (the conductor’s exclusive DG contract makes this impossible). Such consummate performances surely deserve the wider currency a recording would have given it.

Alex Russell

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