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S & H Concert Review

Brahms: Violin Concerto, Holst: The Planets, Sarah Chang (vln), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, barbican, 26th June 2002 (CN)


Sarah Chang is the sort of violinist about whom rumours of greatness abound; then again, in her case, many of these rumours are true. The late Dorothy de Lay was so impressed when she heard her play that she immediately offered to teach her for free.

The Brahms was, then, one of those performances that was always going to be amazing, and Chang’s was indeed beautiful; her tone had an endearing sweetness whilst her technical ability and intonation were impeccable. Her style can be quite aggressive, however, and it didn’t allow for the tenderness found in either Vengerov’s or Sitkovetsky’s playing, yet her skillful interpretation was not weakened by this.

However, as a performance of a ‘concerto’, I was unconvinced. The programme notes took great pains to describe how Brahms intended his concerto to be a dialogue between soloist and orchestra; indeed this is evident itself in the music – for example, the long oboe solo at the beginning of the second movement which the violin does not ever exactly repeat but instead develops. Yet this was a dialogue in which one side – the orchestra - had been gagged. The violinist must have, of course, a certain prerogative but I don’t believe this should be mistaken for total dominance over the orchestra: it is the music that is the most important element and the melody should be asserted whilst any accompaniment plays a lesser role, irrelevant of instrumentation.

Yet time and time again during this performance, orchestral melodic lines were drowned out by accompanying figures on the solo violin and, to my frustration, Davis acted to encourage Chang and further hushed the orchestra. A dialogue cannot occur when one side is singing but the other whispering.

The most enjoyable element of the second half was simply the opportunity to hear The Planets – usually found in youth orchestra programmes - in the hands of the LSO.

‘Mars’ was unapologetically fast (Davis almost having to conduct in two rather than five) and blissfully malevolent, and an unusual orchestral layout - which seated the violas, ‘cellos and basses all together on the left of the orchestra (behind the firsts) -made for a forceful bass line.

‘Jupiter’ had its anthems well and truly milked and although ‘Mercury’ was a little staid and clumsy, each planet was well-characterized, from a serene ‘Venus’ to a disconcerting ‘Neptune’. I could not help feeling, however, that for all the vivacity of the performance, the orchestra would rather have been playing something else.

Christa Norton

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