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Lorin Maazel conducts the LSO: Schubert, Bruckner, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Lisa Batiashvili (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Lorin Maazel, Barbican, 28th November & 1st December 2004 (MB)

Lorin Maazel is never an uninteresting conductor, but on occasion one can come out of one of his concerts and simply be underwhelmed by the experience of having seen him conduct. An elegant technician, able to exert absolute control over any orchestra he conducts, the impression his music making gives is varied: both these concerts showed fabulous attention to detail (especially in Dvorak’s ‘New World’ symphony) but both also showed a distinct failure to get to grips with the architecture of the works on show. Hearing a Maazel concert is rather like treading on snow; you can see behind you the impression of what his conducting has achieved, but rarely, if ever, see what he is going to do before the footprint is made; when the snow melts what is left is a largely unforgettable impression, washed away from the memory.

Bruckner’s Eighth sums up better than any of the performances he conducted the problems of a Maazel concert. Indefinable in structure, this was a reading which was fractured by erratic tempi – fast in the first two movements, slow in the final two, with no discernable arc of unity defining the works trajectory, it simply didn’t convince. Yet, oddly, there were moments of integrity and imagination that stood out, notably the incredible way in which Maazel built up a sustained sense of internal struggle in the adagio’s final climax. Taken in the context of the prolonged view he now has of this movement (some 30 minutes in breadth) it was a miracle of tension. Wonderful also was the coda to the final movement which, given the clarity of Maazel’s conducting, simply breathed with a sense of knowingness. One marvelled at the LSO’s wonderfully rich string tone, the beguiling humanity of the woodwind; what one did not marvel at was the wretched horn playing which, given this reviewer’s still unfailing level of perfect pitch, made for an evening of insufferable listening.

Schubert’s Eighth, which began the first concert, was interesting because of the darkness Maazel gave to the opening: brooding and intense it had both space and time on its side. That was also true of the work which opened the second concert, Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture. The opening – because of its sheer length – did not quite seem as tumultuous as it can do (Karajan’s first Berlin recording is quite unsurpassed here), but with the beginnings of the storm – as furious as I have heard it done live – it proved an expressive journey, if not quite a truly Scottish one.

The best one can say of Lisa Batiashvili is that she is not a protégé of an Americanized school of violin teaching. Indeed, she has more in common with Viktoria Mullova, and that includes a tendency towards icy self-expression. Gentle, atmospheric and melodic doesn’t come into this young violinist’s way of playing, and in Mendelssohn’s pristine E minor concerto she sometimes sounded as hard as oak. Arpeggios suit her technique, however, and she played them superbly – in the cadenza and at the opening of the final movement they were glittering. But serenity and sweetness were missing from the andante, as they were elsewhere throughout the work; a pity, because technically this was an assured account of the concerto, albeit one that totally lacked any humanity.

There is not much one can say about Lorin Maazel’s and the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Dvorak’s E minor symphony: it was absolutely thrilling, possibly the most electrifying I have heard in a concert hall. Both broad paced and viscerally fast, often within movements, it was rather like being present at a witches’ Sabbath. The very brooding opening phrases let us revel in the LSO strings’ gravity and the woodwind playing was peerless; but it was the collective virtuosity of the closing pages of the first movement which raised hairs: incendiary, blazing and scorching it was simply exhilarating. It did not prepare us for the way Maazel handled the Largo, expansively and epically, and with sublime beauty of phrasing: Christine Pendrill’s wonderfully expressive cor anglais summed up the nostalgia Maazel seemed able to duplicate elsewhere in the orchestra, notably in the sextet for violins and violas at the movement’s close. One unusual effect in the third movement was in the second theme where Maazel made the first violins play a single note in ritardando almost as if he wanted them to breathe with the clarinet. Conflict quickly re-emerged, however, in the opening to the final movement, grinding onwards as it rarely does, towards its destructive conclusion, with a final note on the horns (at last, pitch specific!) that seemed to breach eternity. It was a magnificent close to an uneven pair of concerts.

Marc Bridle



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