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Vlad Maistrovici and Beethoven: Jonathan Biss (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Clemens Schuldt (conductor*), Sir Colin Davis (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 13.3.2011 (MB)

Vlad Maistorivici - Halo (world premiere)*

Beethoven - Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor, op.37

Beethoven - Symphony no.7 in A major, op.92

Vlad Maistorivici's Halo was given its previously unannounced - as is the custom - premiere as part of the LSO's Panufnik Young Composers Scheme. Doubtless there are very good reasons for the practice: acquiring a full audience for a young composer's opportunity to be performed by one of the world's greatest orchestras (whatever one controversy-manufacturing newspaper journalist might say) is certainly a worthy aim. However, I cannot help but wonder whether such new works might also benefit from better contextualisation. There were many influences, or at least connections, one might have discerned from earlier music, but it was not clear to me that the two Beethoven works had anything in common with Halo, nor indeed that the concerto and symphony benefited from such juxtaposition as opposed, say, to being prefaced by a Beethoven overture.

That said, Maistorovic, born in Romania in 1985, and by all accounts a fine violinist as well as a composer, certainly did benefit from the advocacy of the LSO and Clemens Schuldt, who seemed to me to conduct the work as if it were already a classic. (I very much hope to hear more from Schuldt before long.) Halo is in many ways relatively straightforwardly pictorial, opening with a light source (a reference, according to the composer, to Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, Mahler's First, and Kurt√°g's Stele) with musical motion quickly tending towards the halo's glow. To say that it is pictorial does not mean that it is not tightly organised; far from it, for audible symmetries and reflections abound. Nevertheless, an audience versed in superior film music would at least have some point of entry. It seemed to me that Mahler and Messiaen were obvious points of comparison, whether 'influences' or otherwise. Particular things to listen out for - or rather, which one could hardly fail to hear - were a high-lying violin line, prominent tuned percussion, and low bass lines across the various instrumental families. Though Maistorovic did not mention Ligeti, I wondered whether the strings' swarming was inspired by the Hungarian master. Whatever the ultimate fortunes of the piece - and it is a fool's game to say too much after a single hearing - this composer is clearly one who already understands the craft of orchestration and who does not fear bold gestures. I suspect that we shall hear more from him.

The performance of Beethoven's C minor concerto was in many ways impressive, and the LSO's performance again proved outstanding, yet doubts lingered concerning some aspects of Jonathan Biss's reading. Sir Colin Davis was, I am delighted to report, firing on all cylinders throughout, reminding us that he is a Beethovenian of distinction. His Staatskapelle Dresden set of the symphonies is certainly one of the best available in digital sound; his Dresden collaboration with Claudio Arrau on the piano concertos remains a justly esteemed classic. Davis is also, of course, a Mozartian hors concours; it was interesting therefore to note that his opening tutti audibly took its leave from Mozart's C minor concerto - which Beethoven revered - but also made it clear that the composer was Beethoven, not his predecessor. The orchestral contribution, then, proved urgent and grand. Biss's piano performance was beautifully shaded and articulated, yet ultimately perhaps a little on the controlled side. (There was a curious mismatch here between the somewhat awkward Romantic flailings one often witnessed and the school of Murray Perahia Beethoven one tended to hear.) The first-movement cadenza illustrated Biss's approach rather well: relatively big-boned, always clear, yet lacking the sense of physical grit, of metaphysical struggle, that a musician such as Daniel Barenboim would always bring to the work, even when seeming a little out of practice. Davis's structural command proved impeccable throughout. The slow movement was, again, beautifully delivered, structurally clear. If the piano cantilena occasionally tended towards Chopin, that is only because it does in the score. Bassoon and flute solos from the LSO principals were simply delightful. I missed again, however, in the piano part the Barenboim-like sense of taking the music by the scruff of its neck. Still, as Apollonian goes, this was impressive. What a pity, then, that the inhabitants of an intensive care ward appeared to have descended upon the Barbican, doing their best to obliterate the music with excessive - even by usual standards - bronchial intervention. The finale was taken attacca. Here, as elsewhere, the tempo sounded just right. Perhaps the rondo theme might have exhibited greater cheek than it did in Biss's hands, but it was always well delivered. The LSO once again sounded magnificent in its marriage of tonal heft and pin-point accuracy; there were some especially lovely cello passages to be heard. Davis remained supportive in his wisdom, the transformation effected by C major release judged to perfection.

Then came Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. The first movement introduction prepared the way not only for the rest of the movement but the symphony as a whole, Klemperer-like in its integrity, doggedly un-Furtwänglerian in the best sense, yet with an equally fine sense of chiaroscuro. Once again, the LSO was on superlative form, its woodwind especially ravishing. Everything combined to render palpable a truly Beethovenian sense of the nobility of the human spirit. (Perhaps this is why we find Beethoven so difficult to perform today.) The growling bass line of that first-movement coda was ominous indeed, yet not for its own sake, but as part of a properly organic whole. Weber - at least according to Schindler - could not have been more wrong: Beethoven was ripe for anywhere but the madhouse. My only frustration concerned the lack of the exposition repeat: I am sure that it can work without, but the grand scale suffered a little, the movement over a little too quickly. However, the gruff opening of the second movement, out of which grew a procession of enormous, indeed overwhelming, cumulative power, was truly a thing of awe. It was as if - and here I thought both of Wagner's Opera and Drama and Berg's Three Orchestral Pieces, op.6 - music were actually developing, taking form, out of something less choate. Light and shade had their structural place too; there was nothing of the monochrome to Sir Colin's reading, nor to the LSO's execution. That subjectivity which lies at the core of the Beethovenian problematic was here to be sure: defiant yet not unyielding.

I neither know nor care how the scherzo matched up to Beethoven's metronome marking; what I can say is that the tempo sounded just right in performance. It was certainly fast but undeniably human. There was none of Karajan's coldness, for the music pulsated with life, just as the Eroica scherzo would or should. Moreover, this was a real dance, with a spring in its step such as one rarely discovers. (I hope that the Almighty will spare me from having to endure Toscanini in Beethoven ever again.) The trio was considerably slower, in the 'traditional' manner, and rightly so. It harked back to Mozartian Harmoniemusik, the LSO woodwind again quite magical, but retained Beethovenian force through strings, brass, and kettledrums. The scherzo was then experienced properly as release, the trio again as respite, and so on. An acid test for me concerning a good performance of this symphony is whether I become bored through the twofold repetition of the trio: no chance of that on this occasion. Davis's command of line and drama once again marked his performance of the finale, yet victory remained, as it must, hard-won. There are no easy answers in Beethoven - and they are certainly not to be found in the ticking of the metronome, as satirised by the composer himself in the symphony that would follow. Rhythm, including harmonic rhythm, is crucial to the success of this and many another movement by Beethoven: Sir Colin provided a masterclass in how to navigate the tricky twists and turns of Beethoven's ebullience. The LSO's string section really dug into their strings, as if their lives depended upon it; we were never far from Fidelio. This was a performance that was exciting in the truest sense, as opposed to the merely excitable accounts for which too often we must settle. The Pastoral awaits next Sunday.

Mark Berry

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