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Vengerov Plays Beethoven in London, Maxim Vengerov (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, Barbican, 30th September 2004 (MB)


A few days before this concert, Maxim Vengerov had been playing this same concerto under the baton of Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic. One wonders how many great artists – from this era or ones before it – would have had the opportunity to play one of the finest of violin concertos under the batons of two of today’s finest conductors, and probably wonder just how differently they had played the work.


There is no question that Lorin Maazel and Colin Davis are very different creatures when it comes to interpreting Beethoven. The former has a distinct regard for flexibility; the latter assumes the mantle of unyielding monumentalism. This was evident in Davis’ handling of the long opening statement – much longer than usual. This conductor’s years in Munich and Dresden counted for a great deal here, for the playing had a sweeping grandeur and an opulence of tone that one does not usually associate with this of all orchestras: close your eyes and you could have been placed somewhere in middle Germany. Vengerov’s own entry – assimilated from within the coda of the opening – brought with it a sense of acoustic awareness, of tonal sweetness allied with breadth of phrasing. Perhaps not naturally the way Vengerov would have played this opening, but persuasive nevertheless.


Both conductor and soloist seemed intent on demonstrating this concerto’s closeness to those dramatic works which frame the period in which the composer completed pieces such as the ‘Emperor’ Concerto. Certainly, Davis’ intolerant approach towards metronome markings placed the development of the work beyond its usual misunderstood relationships of tempi. What Davis did so effectively was to make what originally sounded unprecedented – the opening timpani and woodwind phrases – something which generated force beyond its mere opening. Mystery and suspense became firmly rooted from the beginning – and Vengerov capitalized on this by playing with an unusual degree of lyrical expansiveness. Beethoven’s musical demands for once seemed realised – and Vengerov’s own tasteful cadenzas were consummately delivered, the technical skills never in doubt. The Larghetto reiterated – and then extended - the colour of the first movement, with Vengerov portraying its exquisite shades with golden toned cantabile. The forte statement from the orchestra had both Davis and the LSO digging deeply to evoke the call of Orpheus, a nice counter-balance to Vengerov’s own subtlety of expression. It would have been hard to have described the Rondo as being in natural 6/8 time – at least at first – but Vengerov seemed intent on breaking the magic to make it so. If Davis checked his soloist it was to restore the sense of struggle which this performance seemed intent on illuminating.


This was a rare and refined performance which cast different shadows over the course of the concerto than we are used to hearing. Vengerov’s stature as one of the great interpreters of the concerto seemed radicalised by it and it makes Sir Colin Davis’ forthcoming cycle of the piano concertos with Evgeny Kissin a more interesting prospect than one had first thought.


The beginning and ending of this concert – the LSO’s opening one of the season – did not begin to match the illumination of the Beethoven. Richard Bissell’s new commission – a concerto for horn, trumpet and clarinet – promised much in terms of the prospects such instrumentation might offer, but delivered little musical enjoyment. Over-burdened by an eclectic mix of Bartok, Bernstein, Gershwin and Shostakovich it lacked a voice or three, with each of the instruments singularly failing to interact as they should, in what is fundamentally a triple concerto. Dvorak’s Sixth Symphony – whilst beautifully played – lacked incandescence, distilling instead a sense of Brahmsian contemplation. All too comfortable for these ears.


Marc Bridle

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