At what age is it time for a conductor to gracefully hand on his baton and stop polishing his concert shoes? André Previn last night appeared on stage at the Barbican in a pair of very shiny shoes indeed, but they didn’t help him onto the rostrum any quicker. Ought one to give up when the time it takes to shuffle across stage is longer than some overtures?
Perhaps not, because once the LSO’s octogenarian Conductor Laureate had been helped to a seat in front of the orchestra he was greeted by rapturous applause and his final exit was marked by a standing ovation. The boy did good! Previn has a concert schedule that would make a conductor half his age begin to dream of a smallholding in the countryside and yet thrives on it, with two more Barbican appearances in February somehow fitted round an American tour.
Tonight’s programme was no stroll through old concert standards. The first half was Strauss’ Don Quixote, further titled 'Fantastic Variations on a theme of Knightly Character'. The piece is a tone poem, an orchestral work which tells a story; in this case the Spanish poet Cervantes’ hilarious adventures of a chivalrous yet deluded knight called Don Quixote. Accompanied by his trusty servant Sancho Panza, a sort of Spanish Baldrick, the Don gets into a series of scrapes until he is eventually killed. Strauss uses a solo cello to represent the Don, played in a suitably noble fashion by Principal cellist Tim Hugh, while Principal violist Edward Vanderspar played a hilariously spirited Sancho Panza. This is the great Strauss in a slightly silly mood: the second variation uses the effect of flutter tonguing in the brass to depict sheep bleating and variation seven sees the Don flying through the air accompanied by wind machine (although the fixed low note in the brass tells us he’s actually still on the ground.) Here and in the final fight scene the orchestra’s stunning dynamic control was apparent; the forte playing was loud enough to terrify without sounding forced or uncomfortable. Principal clarinettist Andrew Marriner’s final solo, on the other hand, was so quiet as to be barely heard over the delighted gasps of the audience.
And so to Vaughan Williams’ evocative Symphony No.5, premiered in 1943. This proved to be an enlightening match to the earlier Don Quixote (1896), highlighting the difference between the progressive Strauss and the more conservative Vaughan Williams. Both pieces have a narrative aspect: unusually for a symphony this one tells the story of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, using material from Vaughan Williams’ moral opera of the same name. The symphony is no dramatic orchestral showpiece: the Pilgrim’s story unfolds to beautifully restrained music and shimmering melodies. Previn’s spare conducting style suited this restraint well, allowing his excellent players to interpret the music themselves. The flute section’s pure sound evoked the clean air of the English countryside, whilst the deep spirituality of the Pilgrim kneeling at the cross was thrillingly captured by Principal Cor Anglais Christine Pendrill. The symphony is an unusually quiet work and the wonderfully even sound of the LSO sting section was apparent, however I did miss those bewitchingly quiet moments of which they are capable.
The piece ends in quiet ecstasy, washing the listener with a feeling of catharsis. Previn’s stillness and respect for the orchestra allowed them to create the serenity Vaughan Williams envisioned when he wrote this moral work without stamping his own ego onto the piece. As the conductor made his way off stage to a standing ovation it was obvious that his London audience hope fervently that he will continue to conduct for many years to come.