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S & H Concert Review

Crawford Seeger, Berg, Shostakovich. London Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas, Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin). Barbican Concert Hall, Wednesday, November 6th, 2002 (CC)

 

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 also shone).

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.

Colin Clarke


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