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S & H Concert Review

Britten, Debussy, Prokofiev London Symphony Orchestra, Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Barbican Hall, April 3rd, 2003 (CC)

 

For a long time it was too easy to pigeonhole John Eliot Gardiner as an early-music specialist. A glance at his discography shows how wide-ranging his musical tastes are: recently, for example, he has recorded Elgar with the Vienna Philharmonic, and a disc of Lili Boulanger and Stravinsky for Deutsche Grammophon. Here he presented a concert of three well-contrasted twentieth-century masterpieces.

There was a distinct maritime flavour to the first half (could I really taste the sea in the air around Moorgate on the way in?): Britten’s well-loved Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes (1944) came shoulder-to-shoulder with Debussy’s seascape, La mer (1903-5). Clearly, Gardiner and the LSO were united in their aims in the cruelly exposed lines of the first Sea Interlude, ‘Dawn,’ which were miraculously together (more than could be said for the brass chords, however). The ‘bells’ of ‘Sunday Morning’ pealed as background to the incisive rhythms of the woodwind; the sea at night (‘Moonlight’) was aural peace and tranquillity, true balm to the ears; and the brass moved in shifting walls of sound as the final, wild ‘Storm’ broke loose.

The first movement of La mer, De l’aube à midi sur la mer, had lines so clear that this was almost a deconstructionist performance (although not to the extremes that, say, Sinopoli could go on occasion). Atmosphere, so necessary to this music, was present in abundance, however. The LSO proved their status as London’s virtuoso orchestra in the Jeux de vagues. The gestures of the final movement were played for all they were worth, to close a performance which was, rightly, well received by the audience.

One of Prokofiev’s most popular symphonies, the Fifth is nevertheless a tricky work, interpretatively. The Andante first movement requires complete grasp by the conductor, and Gardiner provided a gripping account. The music unfolded naturally, the conductor highlighting the underlying, flowing Romanticism of the score. The climax was impressive.

Prokofiev’s balletic leanings came to the fore in the Allegro marcato, contrasting well with the processional element of part of the third movement (plenty of lovely, lush sonorities here). The finale brought this powerful performance to an impressive end.

Time and time again, Gardiner provided insights into these frequently performed masterpieces. A very rewarding experience.

Colin Clarke

 

 


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