Posted on October 23rd, 2010

Barbican Hall

At the spiritual centre of this exciting re-match between Mark Elder and the London Symphony Orchestra was Benjamin Britten’s intellectual and emotional kinship with Dmitri Shostakovich. Heartache and bitter irony would be going into overdrive. But first a burst of sunlight and a Slavonic dance or two.

Dvorak’s Scherzo capriccioso, true to its title, plays fast and loose with the traditional footwork kicking over the traces with wicked syncopations that once or twice wrong-footed even the brilliant LSO woodwinds. But Elder had the strings swaying into the second subject waltz with portamento as knowing as it was charming. Surprises were sprung: the harp elaborately bowed to Tchaikovsky, bass clarinet and, not for the last time in the evening, cor anglais (the excellent Christine Pendrill) got to be stars, and Elder really pushed the presto coda and sent it spinning. Ripe and rubicund.

A different, altogether more menacing kind of dance pervades Britten’s Violin Concerto. No one would deny that it’s a piece that takes some unravelling but my goodness does it reward the effort. Daniel Hope, a late replacement for Janine Jansen, had the music to hand – a catalogue of fearful difficulties – but his spellbinding performance suggested someone who has been living with and inside the piece for some time. The intensity of his playing was extraordinary in extremis where so much of the music lies. I can still hear him in the epilogue, a voice of protest in the highest positions of the lowest string as if all attempts were being made to stifle him. And that Spanish dance (Britten’s reponse, it is suggested, to the Civil War) resisting the sensuous pull of his string colleagues with angry and defiant pizzicato stamping. Elder chronicled the arrival of and muted departure of Britten’s first searching Passacaglia with all the compassion of a man currently consumed by the humanity of the composer’s masterpiece Billy Budd which he is conducting so magnificently at Glyndebourne.

Britten’s concerto ends in lamentation, Shostakovich’s 6th Symphony begins that way. Elder and the orchestra traversed the shivering wasteland of the opening Largo with gripping awareness of music effectively suspended in time and space. Numbing solos from piccolo and cor anglais (the composer’s instrument of choice in matters of loss) – emerged as riveting arias. But then Shostakovich sends in the clowns and outrage is turned to toxic satire. The fabulous trenchancy and panache of the LSO in these short, sharp, shocks of slapstick was something to behold. The Red Army Band had joined the circus and didn’t we know it.

Posted in Reviews


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