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S & H Concert Review

R. Strauss, Shostakovich Tim Hugh (cello); London Symphony Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst, Barbican Hall, February 12th, 2004 (CC)


Franz Welser-Möst, in the past, has left me cold and unimpressed. This concert brought about some pleasant surprises. Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote is perhaps not his most popular opus, yet it contains the essence of the Straussian tone-picture. Welser-Möst’s textbook conducting technique ensured a high degree of uniformity of attack and seemed to suit his overall approach to Romanticism in its Straussian incarnation – a refusal to over-indulge, a sensitive ear for sonority and a keen sense of shape.

Further, the LSO gave much for him. Strauss’ ‘Fantastic variations on a theme of knightly character’ date from 1896 and thus immediately post-date Zarathustra. The variations depict in sound the adventures of Quixote, from windmills and sheep to the desirable Dulcinea and the Don’s final ‘defeat’ at the hands of Samson Carrasco. It was interesting that whilst the Don was named in the programme (cellist Tim Hugh, of whom more anon), the Sancho Panza (the excellent Edward Vandespar, co-principal violist) was not.

The LSO clearly enjoyed itself. Woodwind were marvellously characterful, strings were silky smooth. The harp-accompanied oboe melody representing ‘ideal love’ was superbly rendered, brass were punchy and world-class. But more importantly than sectional excellence was the fact that Welser-Möst refused to allow textures to become saturated – yet neither did he under-sell the music’s sweep. Comedic elements (the muted brass chorale in Variation IV, for example) were given their full due, so much so that we had hallucinogenic, possibly psychedelic, sheep in Variation II. Astonishing that the violins could be so together in the more testing passages, too. The climax (Variation VII) could perhaps have carried more import, although everything was in place.

Hugh began rather tentatively, not projecting enough. A pleasant enough entrance, but we had to wait a while before anything heroic emerged and again in Variation IV a little more heart-on-sleeve emotion would have been welcome. It was only towards the end that Hugh opened out and relaxed into Strauss’ sunny, lyrical lines.

Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony is a far more forbidding prospect than any Straussian decadence, especially the twenty minute Largo that forms it first movement. Here, paradoxically, Welser-Möst seemed to have located the Romantic streak that eluded him in the first half. The cello line that initiates proceedings was extremely emotive. However, there is a fine dividing line between letting emotion speak and interventionism, and it must be said that some violin lines later on would have emerged with more import of they had been left to speak starkly. That said, Welser-Möst’s actual beat seemed to imply some massive process of unfolding and it has to be said there was evidence of real vision here. The LSO rewarded their conductor by some staggering playing – of especial note were the cor anglais solo that launches the first movement’s middle section, some truly superb muted trumpets providing distant fanfares and some exemplary timpani work from Nigel Thomas (positively bullet-like in the finale). It was also interesting how Welser-Möst seemed to hear the return of the opening material as circular rather than the logical outcome of more directional sonata-form workings.

The London Symphony Orchestra as virtuoso ensemble sums up the Allegro. If the bizarre side of Shostakovich was there, however, the nightmarish side was merely hinted at. Almost uncomfortably, ear-splittingly loud at times, the perhaps empty heart of the interpretation did come through as the tension sagged in the middle. Again, more could have been made of the cheeky, comic-book antics of the Presto finale – only the end came across as truly outrageous. A final mention for leader Gordon Nikoitsch, whose spiky and agile violin solo in this finale was pure delight.

Colin Clarke




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