As part of their Mahler Anniversary series, the London Philharmonic Orchestra gave a stirring rendition of the composers dark and foreboding Sixth Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall on Friday night, alongside a quite resplendent performance of Szymanowskis lush and, by contrast, ultimately optimistic Second Violin Concerto, Op. 61.
Completed in 1933, the second of Szymanowskis two violin concertos marks a slight return to the more flexible melodic style of his so-called middle period. Not quite as fraught with Romantic sensitivity as the First Violin Concerto, the later work is also simpler in form and not entirely lacking in the folk-inspired idioms and harmonies that came to characterize the composers final artistic phase. Standing in for the unwell Jaap Van Zweden, Austrian conductor Johannes Wildner brought a sense of measured precision mixed with undoubted reliability to his interpretation. His approach resulted in a performance of the Szymanowski that was never overstated but always brimming with intensity (the second movement was particularly emotive in that respect), allowing the focus to fall, quite deservedly, on virtuoso violinist Leonidas Kavakos.
Kavakoss playing was often dazzling (his first movement cadenza was quite astonishing) and other times understated, demonstrating a highly admirable musical sensitivity. It may have been due to the fact that Wildner only stepped in at the last minute, but it struck me as almost rather strange just how closely the LPO followed their replacement conductors plain and clear beat. The playing by both orchestra and soloist, in other words, was for the most part absolutely together and very incisive. This was particularly true of the third movement (clearly discernible as such even though the concerto is actually performed as one continuous piece of music), which was very precise but never sterile in its rhythmic clarity.
I did get the feeling, however, that very little in this performance was being left to chance. This was disguised somewhat in the Szymanowski, thanks in large part to Kavakoss inspiring and often mesmerizing playing, but it became slightly more apparent at times in the Mahler. The seemingly immovable, driving opening of the first movement was terrifyingly accurate, and while quieter sections (such as the woodwind chorale that comes some way through the exposition) were very together, they almost seemed a bit too heavy or matter-of-fact for my liking. However, one or two genuinely humorous (although definitely ironic) moments in this generically rich score were handled with a clarity and wit befitting of a Haydn symphony, although obviously in an utterly different context.
One could interpret this slight resistance to more delicate playing, which persists through into the Scherzo of the second movement (and which clearly echoes the first) as a submission to the overriding force of Mahlers bleak, martial-sounding opening. Indeed, any attempt in these first two movements (which is the way they appear in Mahlers original published order rather than the way he actually performed them, where the Scherzo follows the Andante) to infuse some sense of genuine respite would probably seem quite out of context, or certainly ironic. Such is the power of Mahlers uncompromising pessimism. However, for such generically permissive music I still could have done with a touch more variety, particularly in the Andante of the third movement, which just occasionally seemed to lose that sense of magic. As for the finale, this was stark, incisive and quite terrifying for the most part, but the three hammer-blows that punctuate this movement seemed rather more on the controlled side as opposed to genuinely volatile.
I should think that there is a very real danger with performing Mahlers Tragic Symphony of becoming far too immersed in its darkly emotive and generically varied musical material, to the extent that a sense of uniformity is all but sacrificed. It can become too much, too unfocused, in other words. But then there is also the possibility that it becomes slightly too uniform in its consistency (rhythmic clarity seemed of utmost significance in this performance): it lacks that necessary sense of danger. Fridays performance, it would seem, edged towards the latter interpretation.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk