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S & H Concert Review
Weber, Mendelssohn, Mahler. Leonidas Kavakos (vln), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Kurt Masur, RFH, 30th November 2002 (AR)

Weber Overture, Oberon
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor
Mahler Symphony 1 in D

This concert got off to a slightly shaky start, with a late comer halting the proceedings, receiving a glare from conductor. This was followed by bad horn intonation and a chorus of coughers at the opening of Weber’s Oberon Overture. Things soon improved once Masur got into gear, encouraging the London Philharmonic Orchestra to play with great style and swagger, making the music dance; an exhilarating performance perfectly paced and played.

Mendelssohn’s evergreen Violin Concerto was beautifully played and imaginatively interpreted by Athens born Leonidas Kavakos playing on his 1692 Stradivarius – the ‘Falmouth’. This warhorse is played too often in a routine, mechanical way but under Kavakos one was gripped by his delicate and reserved, but highly charged and intense, way of playing. In the Allegro molto appasionato the soloist produced nerve-shattering, sharp-cutting sounds that this reviewer has never heard in this work before. Yet what made his playing so uniquely special was its refinement of tone and profound sensitivity totally devoid of the sensational.

In the Andante he took on a different more reserved mood and tone, both mellow and sombre, which was deeply moving, especially the closing passage which was exquisitely phrased as it just dissolved away. The Allegretto non tropo – Allegro molto vivace lifted the spirits with jovial and sparkling acrobatics from the violin so airy and light with equally witty playing from the LPO. Masur’s accompaniment was exemplary and succeeded in getting the Mendelssohn sound to perfection. Kavakos is billed in the programme as "one of today’s most sought after virtuoso violinists" and judging by his performance one can see why: he is an artist of true genius. For an encore, curiously the soloist chose ‘Recuerdos de la Alhambra’ by Francisco Tárrega (1852- 1909); this was transposed from classical guitar to violin, and seemed interminable and monotonous. The piece obviously suffered from transposition, and needs the richer sound of the acoustic guitar to make an impact and sound more ‘Spanish’. However, Kavakos played the work with great skill.

Masur was in his element in the evening’s major offering, Mahler’s 1st Symphony. In the first movement - Langsam, schleppend. Wie ein Naturlaut - Masur had an iron grip over structure and dynamics; the opening murmurings of nature were subdued and perfectly measured. What made this movement so typical of the Mahler-sound were the pronounced woodwind bird calls which had a piercing quality which almost sounded kitsch. The distant fanfares (perfectly played off stage) had an eerie effect adding extra tension. With the awakening of nature, Masur slowly built up the tension and drama ending with a great flourish of horns and incisive timpani.

The second movement Kraftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell – had the LPO playing with great verve and lilt with gutsy, swirling violins and deep throbbing ‘cellos and double basses. Masur himself seemed to dance as he conducted this scherzo, which is a pastiche of a bucolic peasant waltz. The opening of the funeral march - Feierlich und emessen, ohne zu schleppen - for solo double-bass and timpani had a sinister simplicity that gave a dark edge to the folk song ‘Frere Jacques’. Masur brought out the crudity and grotesque element of the peasant band music, aptly making it sound hackneyed and brash.

The finale - Sturmisch bewegt - opened with a firework display of stormy sounds, beautifully controlled and delivered with percussion and brass on top form; often this last movement can sound just noisy, fractious, heavy and hysterical. What was especially moving after the noisier outbursts was the yearning string theme which Masur conducted with great passion, but without ever resorting to crude Tennstedt-like mannerisms, blatantly milking the emotions.

Having the horns standing up for the closing passages seemed somewhat of an unnecessary theatrical gesture, more suited to the Benny Goodman rather then the London Philharmonic Orchestra. However, the symphony came to a close with the whole orchestra catching fire in a magnificent crescendo, and Masur and the LPO were rewarded with a well-deserved standing ovation.

Alex Russell

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