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Szymanowski, Mahler: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Johannes Wildner (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 14.1.2011 (GD)


Szymanowski: Violin Concerto no.2

Mahler: Symphony No.6

According to the programme, Jaap van Zweden had intended to include the third hammer blow of fate in the finale of Mahler's Sixth Symphony. That may explain why he ended up 'indisposed' for the event (although flu was the official explanation), to be replaced by Johannes Wildner. And guess what, Wildner left it out! Well, there's no point in tempting the fates, especially when they've already struck once. To Wildner's credit, this was the only aspect of the concert that he played safe, and given that he was a last minute stand-in, he made an impressive job of putting his own stamp on the symphony.

But before that came Szymanowski's Second Violin Concerto, and how Wildner could pick up the baton and conduct that at a moment's notice I'll never know. It is a virtuoso piece for everybody, soloist, orchestra and conductor alike. In many ways, it is the ideal piece for Leonidas Kavakos. He is a player with a lot of sound. Or rather, he is a player who can project across a large orchestra without reducing the sophistication or the timbral variety of his sound. Szymanowski asks a lot of the soloist, there are jumps all around the instrument's range, extended passages of double stopping, instant changes of tempo and mood, and above all an orchestral part that almost always seems to be fighting against the violin. Kavakos handled all these challenges expertly, and produced a performance that could win round even the most sceptical of Szymanowski sceptics. The music flirts constantly with playing styles that evoke folk fiddling, and in less disciplined hands that could sound trite in the extreme. But Kavakos knows where to find the real music in this score, and he has an uncanny ability to make almost every phrase sound as compositionally proficient as Bartok. It's not, of course, but that's easy to forget when you're immersed in that warm rich string sound. And on one final note of praise, the intonation was perfect throughout, which given the long, extended passages of double stopping in strange registers is an astonishing achievement.

Although Jaap van Zweden was not there in body, his presence was felt in the programme for the evening, and the coupling of the Szymanowski Concerto with Mahler's Sixth Symphony was an inspired move. Both are based on lush, saturated textures from a huge orchestra, but the concerto is more modest in scope, providing the ideal warm-up for the main event.

Quite how much time Wildner had had in front of the orchestra before the concert was difficult to say. His last minute substitution showed only in a few moments of uncertainty. The last few bars of the Szymanowski, for example, didn't quite have the punch that the composer clearly intended, and there were a few moments in the inner movements of the symphony where the wind soloists were clearly expecting a change of tempo that didn't happen. But apart from that, the conductor really made the concert, and the symphony in particular, his own. The greatest strength of his interpretation was the relentless drive of the outer movements. The first movement was slightly faster than usual, and with slightly less rubato, making the whole experience appropriately harrowing. The scherzo came second, and achieved some impressive aggression though the merciless switching between the driving rhythms and the calm interludes. If I've one criticism of Wildner's reading, it is his lack of a middle ground between the two. The loud, insistent music in the outer movements was great, as were the calm interludes, but Mahler does write transitions between them. These usually only last a few bars but Wildner steam rollered most of them in order to present the following section as a surprise. These are shock tactics basically, and after a while they lose their impact.

All was forgiven though in the finale, which was presented with all the intensity you could want. The orchestra excelled themselves here, ensuring clarity in every tutti texture, no matter how dense or heavily scored. Special mention should go to several soloists: tuba, horn, cor anglais (in the third movement), and violin, all of whom excelled. I wasn't too impressed with the sound of the hammer blows, and perhaps the LPO's piece of staging was designed with the old Festival Hall acoustic in mind. The livelier, more resonant sound in the hall now really needs something with more punch.

An impressive evening though, and with an unlikely star at the podium. Last minute stand-ins are an all-too regular occurrence for every orchestra, but to find a man at a few hours notice willing and able to conduct a programme like this, and to make such an impressive job of it, that's a very rare achievement indeed.

Gavin Dixon

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