This was the second of the five concerts which make
up the LSO's 'Last Works' series. With such an emotive work as Berg's
Violin Concerto taking up the majority of the first half, openers had
to be carefully chosen. Ruth Crawford Seeger's 'Andante for Strings'
is a 1938 arrangement of the third movement of her 1931 String Quartet.
Andrew Clements' informative programme note tells how Crawford Seeger's
compositional activities declined after her marriage to the musicologist
Charles Seeger in November 1931, as her interests moved towards folk-music.
On this evidence, that seems a pity.
Jenny Lin's excellent disc of Crawford Seeger's piano
music on BIS (CD1310: see review) alerted me to this composer's talents,
and the 'Andante' did not disappoint. This piece shows a remarkably
fertile imagination at work. The slow, shifting, dark-hued opening (for
lower strings) sets up the intense aura of the piece. The dense textures
expand, leading to a massive texture (with beefy double-basses on this
occasion) before subsiding to the starting-point. The more I hear of
this lady's music, the more I want to hear.
The 'Andante''s sombre atmosphere paved the way perfectly
for Berg's Violin Concerto, a piece which was premiered two years after
the composer's death. Mutter's 1992 recording of the Concerto has been
a leader in its field since it was issued (DG 437 093-2, with the Chicago
Symphony Orchestra under James Levine).
Before getting into a discussion of Mutter's contribution
it is important to note that Tilson Thomas and the LSO penetrated to
the heart of Berg's individual language (as opposed to the Italianate
gloss of Pappano's 'Wozzeck' at the Royal Opera, for example). The orchestra
rose successfully to every challenge Berg threw at them; the seemingly
inevitable entry of the Bach Chorale, 'Es ist genug' was pure magic.
The performance was Mutter's, however. Her very first,
open-stringed entry established a stasis and what I can only describe
as a 'white' sound. The whole opening paragraph was gentle and tender,
leading to a technically impeccably polished but emotionally vivid Allegretto.
But the Second Part of the Concerto topped even this, its dramatic and
powerful gestures leading to a cadenza which can only be described as
miraculous. The ending, when Mutter soared perfectly and purely upwards,
was immensely moving. A marvellous achievement.
Shostakovich's last symphony (1971) is enigmatic in
nature and daunting to bring off convincingly. The demands on the players
are high and the LSO acquitted themselves with awe-inspiring confidence.
The rhythmic bounce of the first movement was well caught, the 'William
Tell' quote presented in the tightest of fashions. Tilson Thomas throughout
made the most of Shostakovich's intentionally crass juxtapositions.
The brass were resplendent in the second movement (where the solo cellist
The spiky grotesqueries of the third movement were
perfectly captured, as were the doom-laden Wagner quotes of the finale.
This brought to an end an evening of difficult, but rewarding, listening.
It was wonderful to hear the LSO on such form.