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Brahms and Tchaikovsky: Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra; Kurt Masur (conductor); RFH: 29th  September, 2004 (AR)



The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2004/5 season at the Royal Festival Hall kicked off with a conservative programme under their Principal Conductor, Kurt Masur. This concert, and a further concert on 2nd October, are part of Listen Up! – a six week celebration of orchestral music-making between across the length and breadth of the British Isles, running until 5th November.


Anne-Sophie Mutter made her first recording of Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D, Opus 77 at the age of eighteen with the legendary Herbert von Karajan and rerecorded the work in 1997 with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, also for Deutsche Grammaphon. Her first recording was technically brilliant if rather superficial but under Masur her reading had matured and showed a greater insight and appreciation of the work.


Hearing Mutter again under Masur and the London Philharmonic Orchestra some seven years later was a revelation: her technique still dazzles but is now enhanced with maturity and discretion. Like all supreme virtuosi, her technique demonstrates the art that conceals art.  With the first movement Mutter coaxed forth unusual sounds and subtle nuances playing in a refreshingly ego-free, almost reserved manner. The cadenza was played with admirable dexterity, producing a multi-vocal range of expression, colour and tone, ranging from eloquent elegance to anarchic ruggedness. Again she sounded neither forensically polished nor superficially slick like many of today’s violin babes.


She wisely avoided too swoony an approach to the Adagio, but kept it taut and imbued with a sense of distance and repose.  Unfortunately, she was not well served by the sour intonation of the horn solo. Mutter, swapping the resin on her bow for paprika, realised the fiery Hungarian gypsy-style of the Finale to perfection, playing with great gusto and attack but never sounding flashy or meretricious.  Masur and the LPO were totally at one with Mutter, offering superb support.


For the second half of the concert Masur gave us an overtly heart-on-sleeve performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony in E minor.  Conducting without a baton or score, Masur strikingly resembled Furtwängler, his body and arms flying around with shambling clownish gestures. The opening of the first movement was measured and moody with the LPO producing mellow and warm playing. Masur perfectly paced this movement, instigating a sense of urgency and struggle with his wide dynamic range, producing an intense conflict between weeping strings and mourning brass. Never have I heard the  closing passages sound so dark and melancholic with the deeply expressive double basses and ‘cellos groaning into the abyss.


The Andante cantabile opened with a very sour sounding horn and the climaxes were marred by brash brass playing which sounded distorted from the centre of the stalls; Masur’s over-emphatic conducting seemed to encourage some rather anarchic playing.  Surprisingly, Masur’s conducting of the Valse Allegro moderato was lumpen and stodgy, lacking lilt and grace and again the playing was far too loud for this elegant movement.


I am of the same opinion as Brahms in that I find the first three movements satisfying but share his reservations about the finale that is all bombast and fury with little musical subtlety or invention. Yet Masur certainly conducted it with verve and panache and the LPO played with exhilarating passion and commitment, especially the tempest that erupts from the main theme during the transition to the brooding coda.


The final Presto was given the full hell for leather treatment with brass and timpani bringing the work to its triumphant – if not rather hollow and bland – conclusion. Maybe Shostakovich got his idea for his cynical conclusion of his Fifth Symphony from Tchaikovsky: the hollow victory of a screaming skull.


For an encore, Masur conducted the Waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings with graceful elegance with the rich LPO strings playing superbly; it was so beautifully done I felt it was a pity that this work was not given a complete performance, in preference to the over played and over rated Fifth Symphony.



Alex Russell

Alex Russell

Further listening:


Brahms: Violin Concerto: Nathan Milstein (violin); Philharmonia Orchestra, Anatole Fistoulari (conductor); Angel Records: Seraphim CD: 69035


Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, David Oistrakh, (conductor); Mozart: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik; Salzburg Festival, 23rd August 1972: Orfeo: CD: C 303 921


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