thu 17/04/2014

Jansen, London Symphony Orchestra, Gergiev, Barbican | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

Jansen, London Symphony Orchestra, Gergiev, Barbican

A glorious start to the LSO's Szymanowski retrospective

Janine Jansen: confident and modest artistry

Janine Jansen had every right to be nervous. The last time most of us saw the London Symphony Orchestra the audience spent the whole time laughing at their star soloist. But then Mr Bean has a very different skill set to Jansen. She's able to journey with silken smoothness across the musical stratosphere for what seems like eternity. He's able to blow his nose while playing the piano with the end of an umbrella. That said, one could have imagined Jansen's performance of Szymanowski's First Violin Concerto provoking laughter, but only from a sense of awe and astonishment.

The concerto was the stunning filler to a rich romantic sandwich, bookended by the first symphonies of Szymanowski and Brahms. We began with the Szymanowski, which rollercoastered around the orchestra and up and down the dynamic spectrum violently. It was embarrassing when thought of as a psychological portrait, but imagined simply as a musical investigation of loudness - a kind of classical thrash metal - and it quickly became a fascinating and not unsophisticated little study, one that looks forward to the modernist heavy artillery of Xenakis and Birtwistle.

Either way, no one could fault the commitment or intensity of the playing. The orchestra looked refreshed after the summer recess. So too Valery Gergiev, who let rip in classic Gergiev fashion. And there were surprises: moments of lyricism from the middle registers - from violas, clarinets and bassoons - which intermittently cut through the explosions and gave us some respite. 

The Brahms progressed from mystery to majesty to festivity with glorious conviction

The First Violin Concerto (1916) was written 10 years after this symphony. And in that decade, Szymanowski's musical language appears to get a good scrub. Encounters with the French school unclogs his orchestral style. He retains his creativity with loudness, but his language now offers so much more besides. The expanded canvas of this epic single-movement shouldn't make things easy for the soloist. But with Jansen, there seems to be no such thing as a technical difficulty. Her legato (so crucial to this dreamy piece) was out of this world. Her sure-footedness high up on the E string (where so much of the work lies) was a marvel. There was more evidence of Jansen's artistry (and modesty) in her encore, the first movement of the Prokofiev Sonata for Two Violins, a hypnotic two-minute musical embrace with the leader of the orchestra, Roman Simovic. 

This fluency, intensity and unity of purpose continued into the second half. As always with Gergiev, there were idiosyncrasies to his rendition of Brahms's First Symphony. But they were all welcome. The dark colourings and strong accentation that hinted at a Russian flavour were fascinating. As was the bass-heavy final peroration that seemed to transform the orchestra into an Orthodox choir. So much of whether this work sinks or swims, however, is down to the conductor's tempi choices. Gergiev was a confidant hand on the tiller. The last movement, which can meander confusingly between its many moods, progressed from mystery to majesty to festivity with glorious conviction. Not a bad start to the season.

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