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Strauss and Vaughan Williams: Tim Hugh (cello), London Symphony Orchestra, André Previn, Barbican Hall, Silk Street, London, 16.1.2011 (BBr)


Richard Strauss: Don Quixote: Fantastic Variations on a Knightly Theme, op.35 (1897)

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No 5 in D (1943)

It says a lot about just how much André Previn is part of our national scene and is, dare I say it, a kind of national treasure, that as he made his way onto the platform at the Barbican this evening, he was greeted with an ovation from the packed house. It was such that I turned to my companion and said that he didn’t actually need to conduct anything for it appeared that he had already done his work! But we wanted to know what he had to say about these two works, and we were not to be disappointed.

Tim Hugh is principal cello in the LSO and it was good to see him in the spotlight for this performance of Strauss’s work - he took his place in the orchestra for the Vaughan Williams - for many people don’t believe that orchestral musicians are just as capable of giving a solo performance as they are of playing in the band. After an impressive introduction, very well built and executed, we were off into the Don’s flights of fancy. Hugh was a most self–effacing soloist, never imposing himself on the work, rather allowing the argument to continue as he mused on it. Overall, it was a good interpretation but somehow, about two thirds of the way through, the temperature dropped and Previn’s grasp of the music faltered, bringing about a loss of concentration. After the flying horses section things returned to the good and the end was very well achieved. Principal viola Paul Silverthorne made a fine Sancho Panza, complementing Hugh’s Don perfectly.

During his tenure as chief conductor of the LSO Previn recorded a cycle of the Vaughan Williams Symphonies, which came as a shock to those brought up on the recordings and performances of Boult and Barbirolli. There were two main reasons for this; he injected a youthful spirit into the music and made the works seem to be from a European tradition rather than merely being provincial English soundscapes. Forty years later what has Previn to tell us about this music, after a lifetime’s experience of conducting them? This Fifth was a very well conceived interpretation, with Previn showing a sure sense of line and length. However, for this reading fully to make sense one had to hear the whole performance. The
allegro section of the first movement and the scherzo were slower than we are used to, but here was the strength of Previn’s vision, for there was a cumulative growth throughout and although the climax of the first movement was well built, it was restrained, as were the outbursts in the scherzo. It was in the glorious slow movement, here given as an action of devotion, almost as a Nunc dimittis, where the strengths of the performance began to surface. With the most sublime pianissimo, and sustained playing, Previn drew the most ecstatic sounds from his orchestra and the climax was truly an outburst from the soul; this wasn’t sexual passion, it was a cry from mankind’s soul. Barbirolli once said that in the final pages of the Lento one can see heaven, and, even though my eyes were filled with tears, I could clearly see the Elysian Fields stretching out before me, so sublime was Previn’s interpretation. The finale was very well handled with the return of the opening theme crowning the whole work, and, being the largest climax of the piece, it was an overwhelming experience. The coda, with the strings dividing and climbing ever higher, was exquisite and quite heart breaking.

This wasn’t a performance of Vaughan Williams’s Fifth
Symphony for everyone, for it was a personal view, but we attend concerts for exactly this kind of special occasion. I wouldn’t want to live with a recording of this performance but as an experience in the concert hall, it will live long in the memory for it was a very singular occasion.

Bob Briggs


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