In the second Lord Mayor’s concert held at the Barbican this weekend, the 2010 appeal called for donations for a new initiative called ‘Pitch Perfect.’ This scheme provides opportunities to take part in music and cricket for children in the most deprived East London boroughs, where the LSO is widely involved in community projects.
Music, like sport, encourages participation, and there can be no greater advocate for teamwork than the tightly knit LSO, which, even as its forces swelled to take on the Mahler, lost none of its precision and clarity.
Rodion Shchedrin’s First Concerto for Orchestra, subtitled ‘Naughty Limericks’, gave us a fizzing and infectious opener. These irreverent orchestral games included sprinklings of jazz, with walking-bass pizzicato and honky-tonk piano accompaniment. The Prokofievesque strings scurried with a brittle nonchalance, while the irregular accents on repeated unison recalled Stravinsky’s ‘Le Sacre…’. The orchestra maintained a transparency throughout that gave the music a graceful lightness, though never straying too far and becoming merely frivolous.
Shchedrin explains that his aesthetic is directed by intuition rather than ‘methods’ such as serialism or minimalism. And it is his instinct for humour in music that resonates with a wide audience, the final chord a ‘false’ ending that suggests a new key even though the piece is over. The 77-year-old composer appeared on stage to receive warmly enthusiastic applause.
If the Shchedrin demonstrated the orchestra’s ability to work as a team, the ball being passed deftly from one section to another, then the Strauss Concertino was a game for two players, with the bassoon initially perhaps the more reluctant partner. The work depicts a dance between a princess and a bear (according to Strauss), with Andrew Marriner coaxing a sweet, piercing tone from the clarinet. The bassoon’s however, was a more ungainly dance, held back by the trappings of awkward chromaticism and halting phrases, and if Rachel Gough did not always manage to project through the texture, she was not entirely to blame. Her tone was mellow and inviting, evoking a nostalgia that explains why the bassoon is often referred to as the ‘grandfather’ of instruments.
Both long-standing members of the orchestra, the two soloists were ably supported by the LSO string section, who provided a warm, intimate cushion of sound, at times gossamer-like in its delicacy. The work was in many ways reminiscent of Brahms in the way that it combined Classical ornamentation and phrase structure with an overall Romantic and heartfelt character. Gergiev led the orchestra in lilting tuttis and elegantly shaped phrases, never losing the sense of lightness and ease no matter how complex the harmonic language became.
I came to the Mahler with fond memories of performing it in my youth orchestra days, so hearing it played by a world-class orchestra such as the LSO was a real treat.
The opening Funeral March was darkly restrained, before erupting in a terrifying explosion of swirling violins and rumbling percussion. Special mention must go here to 23-year old principal trumpeter Phil Cobb, who delivered his solos with razor-sharp clarity and ease. In the second movement Gergiev drew broad, sweeping lines, with the full weight of the orchestra a truly terrifying spectacle, its fierce woodwind punctuated with nasty, jagged brass. Here there was a real sense of struggle and desperation, with mournful swellings and a growth of tension that produced a genuinely exciting performance.
The overall schizophrenic nature of the work is mostly obviously apparent in the Scherzo, whose joyous opening is quickly overshadowed by a cold bleakness. The leaping horn solos, however, seemed somewhat pedestrian and overall the movement lacked exuberance. Here it was the poignant moments that were most gripping in their intensity, such as the transition into the Trio section.
The famous Adagietto began as if from nowhere, the strings producing a beautiful, shimmering tone that was almost too sweet natured for this music, capturing less of its tragic aspects through the strained suspensions, which could have been exploited to greater effect. The Finale was delivered with the biting, bristling energy that was largely absent from the Scherzo, with the bubbling woodwind adding hints of darkness to the overall lightness of this movement, a feature that is highly characteristic of Mahler.
According to the composer, ‘the symphony is a world; it must contain everything.’ The LSO certainly achieved Mahler’s world-view in this performance, capturing his frantic neuroses and grotesque humour.