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Dmitri Smirnov & Gustav Mahler; Gordan Nikolitch (violin), Rinat Ibragimov (double-bass), Bryn Lewis (harp); Laura Claycomb (sop), Michelle DeYoung (mez-sop); London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus; Sir Andrew Davis (conductor); Barbican Centre, 26th May, 2004 (AR)


This long LSO Centenary Concert opened with the world premiere of Dmitri Smirnov’s Triple Concerto No. 2, Op 139 (2003) - called ‘LSO Centenary Concertante’ in the programme. A twenty-five minute work, it is scored for an unusual combination of soloists - double bass, harp and violin.

Such is the skill of the composer that these three seemingly disparate instruments complemented each other very well, making for some novel sound combinations alien to the human ear. This radical score deliberately avoids being classified as ‘a masterpiece’ being far closer to what may be termed an ‘alienpiece’ and Smirnov’s love of William Blake’s poetry shines and shudders through.

The orchestral writing of the three sections does not follow a single linear narrative of an introduction, development and conclusion but a series of fragmentary vignettes made up of collage and montage, negating any sense of a single and unified style. Multiplicity and heterogeneity – buzzwords of the post modern – could be ascribed to this ‘abstract’ work - abstract because essentially this work is about nothing.

While the three soloists play as an integrated trio they also play in radical styles with distinctly foreign sounding voices. The shrill, almost metallic soprano of the violin, for example, contrasts with the mellow mezzo-soprano of the harp and basso profundo of the double bass. Often these diverse sounds suddenly became unified sounding like a single voice; even a single instrument. Gordan Nikolitch, Rinat Ibragimov and Bryn Lewis - all principals of the LSO – engaged and disengaged from each other (and the LSO) with great artistry and elasticity.

In the first movement – Con moto – the LSO strings had a wiry brittle tone sounding uncannily like an out-of-tune, scratch orchestra, with the soloists running circles around these painful sounds: the sensation was of music meant to wound. The percussion had the jaggedness of barbed wire. The Lento was unsettling and angst-ridden, giving a sense of unease with the audience clearly being on edge. The concluding Presto had elements of a Hitchcock frenzied film track with the soloists playing as if having a panic attack and then slowly unwinding in to a contemplative somnolence. Orchestra and soloists played this difficult new work impeccably throughout, thanks to Davis’ attentive direction.

Yakov Kreizberg and the London Symphony Orchestra gave one of the most rugged and darkly played performances I have ever heard in concert of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony (Barbican Centre, March 16th 2003). In contrast, Andrew Davis’ palette was more sombre and subdued, with the playing of the LSO being more subtle and refined. This illustrates the protean nature of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, which is open to a multiplicity of interpretations of tempi and nuances allowing the conductor full artistic license.

Davis’ conducting of the Allegro maestoso was broad and measured without the pitfalls of the plodding tempo or pedestrian phrasing that can mar this movement. The central climax was perfectly built up and unleashed with intense impact. The concluding passages for swooning strings were tastefully kept in check, devoid of sentimental excess.

Davis took the Ländler: Andante moderato – as marked by Mahler: Sehr gemüchlich. Nie eilen [Very moderate. Never rushing]. He galvanised the LSO strings to play with a distilled sedateness making the music glow. The passages for pizzicato played strings were delicate and tranquil with all the intimacy of a string quartet. The Scherzo was conducted with verve with Davis securing sprightly, lilting rhythms galvanising his forces into producing blaring burlesque sounds.

In Urlicht, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung was simply sublime, projecting her warm and radiant voice in full bloom from the back row of the chorus, together with the eloquent, more reserved soprano of Laura Claycomb. The concluding twenty minutes were perfectly paced, building up inexorably to the final choral climax.

The opening of Im Tempo des Scherzo: Wild herausfahrend was just that with the LSO exploding in an exultant outburst of spectacular sounds. The subdued passages for off-stage brass and timpani very often sound muffled and indistinct but here they had great clarity as well as attack: I cannot recall hearing the off-stage brass and timpani so convincingly done and played with such crisp definition.

The Allegro energico was a shattering experience of overwhelming force, resurrecting the audience quiet literally! The LSO Chorus sung with exemplary precision, progressing from an eerie hush to a torrent of blazing grace; the male voices in particular were very powerful.

Of all the concert performances of Mahler’s Second Symphony I have heard in recent years, DavisResurrection most truly represented the exultation and awe of Resurrection. Davis and his superlative forces rightly received a fervent standing ovation.

Alex Russell

Further Listening

Gustav Mahler Second Symphony; Stefania Woytowicz (soprano), Lucretia West (contralto) Wiener Philharmoniker, Claudio Abbado (conductor), Salzburg, Grosses Festpielhaus, 14.8. 1965; Arkadia ADD CDHP 542.2



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