Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Elgar: Serenade for Strings; Mozart: Piano Concerto 25; Brahms: Symphony No 1: LSO/Runnicles @ Barbican Hall, London

6 April 2006

I owe all my readers and the LSO an apology for being late to this concert. Due to major delays on the tube, I had to miss the first half of Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, and it is something I regret considerably. After all, who would perform English music better than the best string section in England?

Under the guidance of conductor Donald Runnicles and guest leader Andrew Haveron, the LSO produced lush sounds, huge phrases, fantastic control of dynamics, and made the work an excellent start to the concert programme.

Then it was time for Mozart’s 25th Piano Concerto in C major K503 with Swiss soloist Andreas Haeflinger, whose piano notes are among the ‘cleanest’ I have heard live. His excellent control of phrasing and technique ensured that the solo part of the first movement, which would have been easy to turn into a technical exercise of chromatic and octave scales, was musical in a way.

One only wishes he and the LSO had done more colour changes every time Mozart wrote a major/minor mode alternation in the music. Worthy of particular mention are Haeflinger’s trills, which were as precise as a metronome. But while the entire first movement was an excellent performance, one wonders if it could have done with a little bit more cheekiness?

Not knowing which players to cut for a reduced string ensemble must be a headache faced only by world-class orchestras. The LSO ensemble for the Second Movement of the Mozart was too large, and that disrupted the balance between the orchestra and the soloist. Despite the excellent duet sections between flute and solo piano, the entire movement was tainted by the overwhelmingly dense string sounds.

The Rondo of the Mozart was perhaps the highlight of the Concerto. Haeflinger’s perfect technical ability ensured that the audience had something to swoon over. Yet his precision was so accurate that the music, despite all its exciting and fantastic displays, came out a little dry. Nonetheless, the phrasing and contrasts between the rondo theme and episodes were well done, and credit must be given to the orchestra which managed to finish the entire work with a bang.

When Brahms’ first symphony in C minor Op 68 premiered in 1876, the composer Richard Wagner was forced to eat his words regarding his calling Beethoven’s Ninth ‘the Last Symphony’. Had Wagner attended this concert, he might have had to eat his best Sunday hat as well.

The LSO played the ever-famous tragic opening with so much intensity and energy that just for a while, I could imagine how the audience back in 1876 gaped and gasped. The seemingly infinite energy of Runnicles and the world-class wind section provided the support for an immense performance of the first movement, its excellence measured by the fact that nobody coughed when the movement ended.

The second movement of the Brahms was mainly string dominated. Lush, endless lyrical lines projected the perfect countryside picture of German Romanticism. The oboe solo in particular was very well played. Credit must also go to the horn section for their warm and clear punctuations, contributing to the lush and beautiful sounds in this movement. The violin solo which ended the movement was reminiscent of the Violin Concerto, and it was so well-performed one really wished it never had to end.

The third movement, with its cheerful folk-like tunes, must have been Brahms’ way of making up to the winds for having a string melody-dominated second movement. The LSO’s world class wind section handled the movement excellently, and with the support of the strings, gave a performance of such great colour and contrasts that again, I wish it could have gone on forever.

The Finale, probably the highlight of the evening, was, and I say this honestly, the best performance of the finale of Brahms’ first symphony I have ever heard in my (albeit short) life. Following a seemingly mild opening for a finale, the rest of the movement was a huge buildup in tension. The nerve-wrecking pizzicato subject in the strings was very well-controlled, and the trombones’ excellent chorale entry (they had three movements’ worth of rests before this) was so well-performed it was almost painful when it ended. The tireless driving force in the lower strings kept the intensity going in the entire work, and the final buildup resulted in an explosive end, with 12 minutes of consecutive applause.

The LSO’s performance of the Brahms was so immense that one almost does not know how to describe it in words. Indeed, the only bad thing about the performance was the fact that it had to end! And so, bravo to Runnicles and the LSO (and especially the timpanist, the unsung hero of the work) for such an impressive performance of the Brahms. The month of April looks all bright and sunny already.

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