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Beethoven and Mussorgsky: Maxim Vengerov (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Myung-Whun Chung (conductor).  Barbican Hall 3.3.2006 (TJH)

 

 

 

Maxim Vengerov is hardly a stranger to Beethoven's Violin Concerto.  Having performed it twice in the last 18 months with the London Symphony Orchestra alone, his performance with Myung-Whun Chung on Friday seemed decidedly comfortable, like the wearing of a well-loved woolly jumper.  He clearly enjoys the music, too: his eyes remained shut through much of the performance, his face marking the various changes of mood as clearly as his fingers.

 

The problem was, it all seemed a little too cosy.  Such was his ease with the score that he failed to give it the concentration and energy it demands.  The first movement seemed generic, even a little dull: both Vengerov's playing and Chung's conducting were decidedly unfocussed, and the LSO failed to play with the clarity or purpose they had managed in the same work under Bernard Haitink a few months ago.  Vengerov livened things up a bit with a flashy – if ill-fitting – cadenza of his own devising, but the sum result was ultimately flat.  The slow movement showed little improvement.  The orchestral playing was better, but lacked clear direction, and Vengerov's playing felt dangerously introverted, as though he was playing to himself.  He clearly relished the chance to get stuck into the finale, though, and here the music suited his carefree, relaxed approach much better: it had a knockabout energy that ironically produced the most careful playing of the evening.  Of course, he played with consummate professionalism throughout, and Vengerov’s technical expertise were on clear display; but the audience's reaction – wild cheering and a partial standing ovation – was vastly disproportionate to his achievement, speaking more to his popularity and charm than to his actual performance.

 

If Chung's unfocussed settings had failed to crystallise his soloist's endeavours in the Beethoven, he did at least produce a thoroughly entertaining second-half, in the shape of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.  Tired old chestnut though it is, Chung conducted with such relish and vividness that the work seemed joyously reborn, and he coaxed marvellously committed playing from an orchestra who, twenty minutes earlier, had seemed as though they were merely going through the motions.  From the soulful alto saxophone in Il Vecchio Castello, to the thunderous basses of Bydlo’s oversized cartwheels, to the claustrophobic atmosphere and stunning brass ensemble of the Catacombae – this was as pictorial an Exhibition as one is likely to hear.  If only Chung had managed to galvanise his orchestra as successfully in the Beethoven, this might have been a truly memorable evening; instead, it was merely – if enjoyably – diverting.

 




Tristan Jakob-Hoff

 

 

 


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)