London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican review ****


Anne-Sophie Mutter, Sir Mark Elder, London Symphony Orchestra

Barbican Hall, 7th May 2017

Modest Mussorgsky, arr. Rimsky-Korsakov – Prelude to Khovanshchina
Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto in D major Op.35
Shostakovich – Symphony No.15 in A major Op.141

Who’d be a Russian composer eh. Mussorgsky drinks himself to death at 42 (look at the famous Repin portrait to remind you there is no glamour in this form of self destruction) and p*sses away whatever talent he may had have (one powerfully dramatic opera in Boris Godunov). Tchaikovsky may have taken his own life, or fell victim to cholera, at just 53, and seemed by many accounts to have felt compelled to keep his sexuality a private matter. And Shostakovich lived a life of allusion and inference which kept his true feelings about the society he lived and worked in a mystery.

So you’d be surprised if they produced a jolly night out musically. Well then you might have been surprised. Well maybe only a bit, as some of this did sound exactly as you might have expected given these personal demons. Yet in other ways, these pieces seem to me at least quite a long way from the narratives that are routinely get trotted out to explain the work of these three composers.

So with the Khovanshchina Prelude we have the opening to Mussorgsky’s planned grand historical opera exploring the changes in Russia society in the reign of Peter The Great. Unfortunately it never got finished and Rimsky Korsakov had to step in and tszuj it up a bit and smooth it off. I am afraid that for me it is just a bit of a meandering melody with no great interest. The Tchaikovsky concerto is properly blingy with memorable tunes but gets a little less endearing with each hearing I think. The Shostakovich, on the other hand, gets more interesting for me with each hearing. Four movements, usual proportions, biggish orchestra but balanced. But what he then does with this structure is all over the shop. Lots of single instrument lines, loads of obvious and not so obvious musical quotations, exaggeratedly simple tunes and then complex twelve note themes. The parallels with Nielsen’s 6th Symphony are often drawn which makes sense and which I always love. Who knows what he was thinking but it does seem to me to be some sort of encapsulation of all of his output before set against some sort of commentary on all that he had seen in his life. Anyway its top notch.

So the Shostakovich wqs the main reason for going to this concert (it is the programme that largely drives my choice now that I have a firm handle on the boundaries of what works for me like in the classical music world). However I am also keen to hear as many of the great performers and conductors and this was a chance to knock a couple off the list. I have to say Anne-Sophie Mutter must be the best violinist technically I have ever heard but this almost felt too perfect and furiously methodical. Still I will remember this performance, especially when she turned to the LSO to implore them punp it up, even if I am not sure I really enjoyed it. For the Shostakovich though I can see why Sir Mark Elder is held in such high regard.

So all in all a very fine programme and I will add Sir Mark Elder to the list of must see conductors (when they have the right pieces) which includes Rattle, Haitink, Jurowski, Jansons, Salonen and Chailly.

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