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