Opera + Classical Music Reviews

LSO/Harding @ Barbican Hall, London

10 February 2011

A request by pianist Hlne Grimaud saw Ravel rather than Mozart provide the filling to this concert, but it was ultimately Richard Strauss who dominated the evening. This is partly because he wrote two of the three pieces performed, but mainly because of the London Symphony Orchestras quite remarkable performance of Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 in the second half.

This started unusually with a recitation of Nietzsches opening to Zarathustras Vorrede (Prologue), delivered by Samuel West. This worked because it provided some welcome context, and also because a hushed hall listening to a lone voice heightened the sense of anticipation that made the orchestras entry all the more meaningful and exciting.

The performance itself was characterised by the ambiguity that lies at the heart of Strausss composition, though it is most in evidence at the end. Questions and counter-questions were asked, and any answers hinted at simply suggested more in turn. In fact, the only question mark that didnt hang over this performance concerned the quality of the LSOs playing.

Under the baton of Daniel Harding, the opening sunrise was suitably overwhelming, but the step back into the first religious section (featuring the plainchant phrase, Credo in unum deum) provided a real contrast from a cranial perspective, but a fluid transition from a musical one. The Of Science section then introduced more terrifying turbulence, totally at odds with the original aim of trying to find stability in science.

In direct contrast, the Dance-Song was intelligent, but also sumptuous and liberating. It was then astonishing how the twelve comparatively quiet bell strokes penetrated so effectively the atmosphere of heightened exuberance and pandemonium to herald the final, and most ambiguous, section of all. Here, as in the performance as a whole, the orchestras achievement was to create an overwhelming visceral experience by focusing on precise rhythms, tempi and tonal balance. Such a strong base then enabled the piece to breathe and take off of its own accord.

Before the interval Hlne Grimaud played Ravels Piano Concerto in G major, instead of the originally programmed Mozarts Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major. Grimaud proved adept at bringing out the light-hearted jazz elements, while still firmly grounding the piece in the spirit of neo-Classicism. Her hands demonstrated just the right mix of flexibility and rigidity in their movement to produce a multi-faceted sound, and it was interesting how in key passages she made the lower notes sound fundamentally different in tone to the higher ones while also maintaining an overarching sense of unity.

The highlight, however, was the second movement in which the pianists opening solo was minutely managed. The various instruments then swirled into the action with such ease that by the time that the cor anglais took up the pianos opening melody at the end (with some beautiful playing from Christine Pendrill) it felt as if a circle being drawn in the sand had just been completed.

The evenings opener was Strausss Don Juan, Op. 20, in which the orchestra also succeeded in combining precision with exuberance. Particularly impressive was the way in which the strings rose through and above the cacophony of sound generated by the full orchestra. The performances of Don Juan and the Ravel were not quite as wondrous as that of Zarathustra, but both saw the LSO in fine form. So much so that during the interval there was a keen sense that it was on the verge of producing something very special. And, in the event, such intuition proved to be well founded.

Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk

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