There was undoubtedly a lot of potency stirred up in Sir John Eliot Gardiner's conducting of the London Symphony Orchestra as he led the ensemble through an all-Mendelssohn programme. Unfortunately, however, that potency was not drawn from the melody or rhythm most of the time; rather, it was born of pace and volume.
The performance sparkled only throughout certain portions of the Second Symphony, the “Hymn of Praise”. Here Gardiner’s handling was regal and Handelian. On one hand, the array of dynamics and tempi was limited; casting its prayers to the Temple of the Fast and the Loud. On the other, some call and response sections between strings and woodwind were beautifully played. An underbelly of arpeggios punctuated the principal themes on the strings with sublime harmony while the luscious waltz theme of the second movement was incandescently light and slow enough to be savoured.
When it came to the Adagio religioso, the LSO conformed to the snail’s pace dictated by the score. This resulted in the listeners’ perception of the strings’ lack of legato and their occasionally rigid way of playing. There was little rubato to be gauged anywhere.
The long choral section of the symphony led us into new territory. While the Monteverdi Choir offered us a superb range of dynamics and changes both in temperament and in sentiment, Gardiner’s interpretation became a parade: it was more jubilant than solemn; more pompous than ceremonial. It seemed that the orchestra mostly stuck to a single objective: that of convincing the listener that it was powerful. We were quickly convinced. But many elements of this nine-movement cantata – the forebodings of death, the lamenting tenderness - were sacrificed for an affected ostentation across all the instrumental sections.
Of the three singers, Michael Spyres made by far the greatest impression. Perhaps the most accomplished performer of the evening, he engineered each syllable and note in order to project a host of different sentiments. His German diction was furthermore crystal clear. Soprano Lucy Crowe gleamed in the middle passage but struggled in the high register, while mezzo Jurgita Adamonytė’s voice effused a luminous quality.
An infinite amount of fireworks were spun when Alina Ibragimova launched into Mendelssohn's beloved Violin Concerto in E minor. Yet the source of these fireworks was largely single-faceted. There is no doubt, whatever phrase she plays, that Ibragimova can tackle both the toughest trills and slowest, gentlest lullaby diminuendi. She owns the violin from every technical perspective. For much of the evening, however, she appeared to use this magnum opus as a sounding board through which to test her mastery. Sudden switches from piano to forte were common and unexpected. Most groups of triplets were raced through with a single and untempered level of ferocity. Pyrotechnical they may have been, and yet their own velocity made most of them so clustered that they sounded indistinct.
Several of Ibragimova’s nuances and additions, as well as improvised ornaments, were in themselves effective. In this case, however, her application of them seemed at times to be selected on the basis of a lottery, rather than grounded in delectable artistic choices.
Throughout the concerto, instrumental sections were not always together. Gardiner’s rhythmic handling of entrances was on point for the most part, yet the woodwinds were often too faint to be heard and their performance sometimes sounded insouciant. Certainly the changes in dynamics were apparent. But, as in the case of the soloist’s playing, these switches were sudden and bombastic; oftentimes the phrases were hurried to their ends prematurely.
Altogether an assured imperiousness was not enough for all the nuances across these works to be conveyed. Festive and felicitous pieces for large orchestras were here performed with the thrilling but not so mellifluous pulse of a circus show. Mendelssohn deserves more.
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