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Wagner, Dvořák and Brahms
: Isabelle Faust (violin) / London Philharmonic Orchestra / Jiří Bělohlávek. QEH, 22.2.2006 (ED)


Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Prelude and ‘Liebestod’)
Dvořák: Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.53
Brahms: Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68


Sometimes you don't get what you'd expect in a concert and sometimes you don't get what you'd like. Such was the case here. Wagner's Tristan Act I Prelude and 'Liebestod' began the evening, and given that orchestra and conductor had received glowing reviews for their performance of the complete opera at Glyndebourne a couple of years back, I hoped for much. In the event, the Prelude proved rather unwilling to take flight from its first emotionally laden chords. Jiří Bělohlávek rather overemphasised the rests near the beginning, so they verged on becoming breaks, to the detriment of overall musical, dramatic and emotional momentum. Only comparatively late on, did the Prelude really spring to life, but it might have done so earlier had the strings been antiphonally positioned on the stage to emphasise the orchestral details. When in its stride the orchestral tone was full, even if the violins held sway over the valiant sawing of the cellos and basses.


The ‘Liebestod’ (as Liszt misnamed Isolde’s ending to Act III) proved rather more immediate in terms of energy and emotion than the Prelude had been. However, those expecting a glorious soprano line were disappointed as the solo part was passed rather impressionistically between the instrumental sections. While this was totally ineffective in terms of compensating for the missing voice, it did at least allow some often drowned out orchestral details to be heard. But I’d have it done with the voice any day, in preference.


The Dvořák violin concerto found Jiří Bělohlávek very much on home territory, and his reading of it proved fluent bringing out the true idiom through careful orchestral shaping. Isabelle Faust produced a cleanly articulated yet steely tone from her 1704 ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Stradavari, which on the whole failed to show any reason for the name, or indeed display much outward love by Faust for the work itself. Workmanlike opening solo gambits led to exchanges of a more appropriate conversational nature, during which Bělohlávek allowed woodwinds (flute and oboe), and later the brass (trumpet) contributions to come through unforced.  Faust played the middle movement adagio, often considered the emotional heart of the piece, was more sensitively and her phrasing was helped along nicely by Bělohlávek’s superb pacing. A nice touch was the hint of eternal longing that came into the closing reverie. With a final movement in lighter vein, and of punchier tempo, two Czech dances of contrasting character were brought into play in a manner akin to that which the composer employs in his Slavonic Dances. Faust’s part maintained linear purity, although it was increasingly punctuated with an insistent streak that contrasted with the orchestra's full-bodied tone.


Brahms’ oft-quoted remark about his first symphony, “My symphony is long and not exactly amiable”, has only ever seemed partly accurate to me. While it is undouctedly long and is for the most part prone to revelling in a dense, insular and even angst-ridden (or dour) sound world, ultimately it emerges at its journey’s end in a blaze of glory. This is a massive, self-propelling and self - supporting structure.


Bělohlávek’s reading was muscular and used the lower strings more effectively than elsewhere in the programme, to form a sure foundation. For all this, the upper strings and woodwinds had no less of a contribution to make. In the final movement particularly. contrasts of tempi were handle adequately (though not as a carefully as with some conductors) to bring the most out of the thematic material. Some points of orchestration were well handled however – violin pizzicato repetitions, for example (again, in the last movement) – to show the underlying intent in the writing. Here though, as in the Wagner, the lack of antiphonal strings had a detrimental effect and as a whole the symphony proved only moderately satisfying. With a little more thought towards stage management more of the music’s drama might have been forthcoming.


Brahms throws down a significant gauntlet for any conductor and orchestra in this symphony and meeting its challenge is still something not to be taken lightly. Though Bělohlávek and the LPO were certainly serious about the work, it was a pity that none of their performances in this concert were out-and-out successes, despite many elements of interest throughout. Such is the mercurial nature of live music-making.


Evan Dickerson



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