London Symphony Orchestra, Mutter, Gergiev, Barbican Hall

Posted on December 1st, 2011

For anyone who’s ever thought that the term Vorsprung durch Technik might be better applied to the superstar violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter than a certain brand of automobile her hair-raising account of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra will have given pause. The spirit was so wild and the risks so great that any thoughts of cosmetic perfection in line with her sleek aquamarine attire were very quickly discarded. This Tchaikovsky was as wilful and rough-hewn as it comes.

It was the kind of performance that only a conductor of Gergiev’s very particular way with the Russian vernacular could have accommodated so wholeheartedly. His kinship with Mutter redefined the word rubato where “borrowed time” shifts the shape of phrases in interesting ways. Her very first entry demonstrated how a violinist of such prodigious gifts matches phrasing to colour and pulls all the expressive devices like vibrato and portamento into a seemingly spontaneous effusion of sound and feeling.

There were moments of quite extraordinary self-indulgence – phrases spun out within an inch of their lives – there were equally moments where heat and recklessness gave rise to smudges and imperfections that were fleetingly disturbing but in the bigger picture irrelevant. A raw and impetuous cadenza had one fearing for the instrument – it was edgy, stressful stuff with the prospect of snapping strings only a whisker away. The accelerator was floored in the finale: the bow-arm articulation had to be seen and heard to be believed.

But it was the central Canzonetta that made the performance really personal, its diaphanous beauty of sound tapering to near-nothingness in the reprise of the melancholic main theme.

After the interval, Wolfgang Rihm’s Lichtes Spiel felt like a German offshoot of that movement, its rapturous dreamscape looking back over the better part of a century to Rihm’s compatriot Alban Berg. A time warp to late, late romanticism; a surfeit of fanciful imaginings not so much ending as evaporating.

And suddenly the empty wastes of the opening movement of Shostakovich’s 6th Symphony stretched before us. Gergiev made this a true and timeless Largo with piccolo the icy voice of solitude and cor anglais that of lamentation. Weighty and virtuosic, the LSO excelled in matters momentous and Gergiev could hardly have made more of one of the great voltes-faces in 20th century music as Shostakovich sends in the clowns and a cohort or two of the Red Army band. He always did have the last laugh.

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