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Seen and Heard Concert Review



Martinu, Mozart, Dvorak: London Symphony Orchestra, John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), Leif Ove Andsnes (piano). Barbican Hall, London 09.11.2006. (GD)



Eliot Gardiner launched into the ‘Poco allegro’ of Martinu’s superbly terse ‘Double concerto’ with tremendous precision and sustained rhythmic energy. The underlying ‘darkness’ and ‘grim antiphony’ of the work (written for Paul Sacher in 1939, and performed by Sacher in 1940) is obviously informed by the grim political events in Europe at that time…although Martinu did not provide any programme or allusions to this effect. Eliot Gardiner played the piece very much as a dramatic re-working of a classical ‘concerto grosso’ - tough, difficult, contrapuntal music seems to suit his musical psychology. After the sustained and ominous ‘Largo’ and the scrupulously executed final ‘Allegro’ , with its complex pizzicato rhythms and wild polyphonic string configurations I was left wondering why this superb work is not performed more often? It makes a wonderful compliment to the more famous ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta by Bartok, also commissioned and first performed by Paul Sacher, two years earlier.

Leif Ove Andsnes gave a rather detached if quite accurate performance of the Mozart’s endlessly engaging Piano Concerto in G major, K453. By ‘detached’, I do not mean to imply that a more ‘romantic’ or ‘rhetorical’ reading is required (as some commentators have insisted). But more engagement (dialogue) is required between piano and orchestra. Also, Andsnes paid little attention to Mozart’s superb and diverse textural and harmonic range… it all sounded a little opaque. This was all the more frustrating as Eliot Gardiner and a very well rehearsed LSO provided plenty of scope for such dialogue. At times in the ‘Andante’ Andsnes seemed to be merely accompanying the orchestra rather than the other way around; something you never experience with pianists like Serkin and Uchida. Nevertheless it was a sheer joy to here all the operatic high spirits of the concerto’s coda, with its headlong (‘Figaro’ sounding) final rush, executed with such clarity. Here, in particular, the woodwinds excelled themselves. Gardiner, of course, deployed ‘divisi’ firsts and second violins.

I was particularly looking forward to Eliot Gardiner’s view of a standard nineteenth century symphony; would this baroque ‘specialist’ shed new light on an old ‘war-horse’? Well, yes and no, as it turned out. Yes, in paying scrupulous attention to instrumental/contrapuntal detail; no, in not really being fully in touch with Dvorak’s very Czech rhythms and numerous influences from lyrically charged Czech folk traditions. Although this symphony is now firmly established in the Dvorak symphonic canon this is a relatively recent formation. From its first performance (in Prague in 1890, under the composer’s direction) it was seen as a lesser work. Brahms, who admired Dvorak, thought the piece pleasant but lacking in real symphonic substance. And even the usually perceptive Tovey dismissed it as ‘a much weaker work’.

John Eliot Gardiner is much more historically aware than most of his conductor colleague’s and I had the impression that here he was attempting to insert an element of symphonic weight (actually German symphonic weight) that Brahms, for one, found lacking in the piece. The opening ‘Allegro con brio’ theme on the cellos dragged rather with none of that dance inflection one hears in the old Czech Phil, Talich recording. Gardiner emphasised the weight of the orchestra in the short (variation like) first movement development section; but again I heard no dance-like lightness and lucidity of texture one hears with conductors like Talich, Sejna, and indeed, Mackerras. The first movement’s rousing and jubilant coda was well played but lacked that diverse buoyant rhythmic thrust one hears in more idiomatic performances.

The ‘Adagio’ second movement is not an adagio in the strict sense; again containing a set of variations with march- like intonations. Again Eliot Gardiner started rather ‘sotto voce’ and slowly, having to pick up tempo by the time he reached the C minor processional section, heralded by a thrillingly played horn motive. Although the movement went quite well in general I was aware of certain moments (especially towards the end of the movement) where the music dragged.

The charming third movement minuet/waltz, although elegantly delivered, was subjected to a number of tempo/dynamic variations (as though Gardiner was over-characterizing the music) which interfered with the movement’s simple, graceful flow.

The trumpet calls which herald the final Allegro were played too loudly, sounding a tad strident. Also, by the time of the exultant coda, a few minor (but noticeable) horn and trumpet glitches ensued. Again Gardiner too often dragged the opening variations on celli and complete strings, sounding turgid at times. The jubilant and carnival - like main allegro on full orchestra sounded a little bashed – out (more bounce and rhythmic diversity/contrast is needed here… as again demonstrated by Talich). The subsiding variation theme, before the brief and carnivalesque coda, was again dragged out to what seemed like an eternity, thereby missing that sense of surprise and contrast heralded by the coda. Unusually for Gardiner the fashionable first and second violins arrangement, where they are all seated on the conductor’s left, was adhered to, thus missing a whole range of antiphonal effects and nuances.


At the end of tonight’s concert’s first half Leif Ove Andsnes played as an encore Mendelssohn’s charming Op 85, No 6 song without words.





Geoff Diggines



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