Kavakos, London Symphony Orchestra, Bychkov, Barbican Hall | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
Kavakos, London Symphony Orchestra, Bychkov, Barbican Hall
From austerity to rambunctiousness all the way to triumph in a memorable outing for the LSO
Leonidas Kavakos was originally meant to be premiering a concerto by Argentinian composer Oswaldo Golijov, which had also been scheduled for Berlin in 2011 and subsequently for Los Angeles in May this year. The composer missed both those deadlines and the work apparently remains uncompleted – it was replaced on the programme by the Berg concerto.
This was the first concert in Kavakos’ residency with the LSO under the UBS Soundscapes Artist Portrait banner, a series which also see him perform concertos by Sibelius and Szymanowski. The Greek violinist, shoulder-length hair pushed behind his ears and with several days’ worth of stubble, looks like a man whose mind is on higher things – and boy does it pay off. This was a searching and sensitive performance of a work which, despite a firm place in the repertoire, lacks the flamboyance and more obvious charms of some of its peers. That said, Berg brings a Romantic sensibility to his application of the twelve-tone method, and here lays out his main building blocks so that a series of major and minor triads spring out, as well as suggestions of a whole-tone scale. The austere coolness associated with lack of tonality are therefore mitigated by plenty of tonal hooks for the ear to latch on to, as well as genuine departures from the tone row in quotations from a folk song and a Bach chorale. The lighter first half of the work depicts the life of Manon Gropius, daughter Alma Mahler with her second husband Walter Gropius, both close friends of Berg. The second half tackles the 18-year-old’s affliction with polio and eventual death.
Kavakos (pictured right) found the lyricism in the work, as well as the despair. And if the work isn’t virtuosic in the show-off sense, it has many challenges – great flurries of double-stopping and jagged lines abound. Yet everything felt natural and joined up in this assured yet unpretentious account. Semyon Bychkov, with no baton and a notable economy of movement, coaxed rather than imposed, and the LSO followed obediently and radiantly. It would have felt inappropriate for Kavakos to dig out a party piece after that, and it was in supremely good taste that his encore was the Sarabande from Bach’s Partita No 2. He is simply a very serious musician, and the LSO has been very wise to notice the relative rarity of his appearances in London and do something about it.
Most satisfyingly, Bychkov was adept at separating the various stylistic registers in the music
And so from austerity to rambunctiousness and Mahler’s Symphony No 1. Bychkov, now baton-wielding, put the great LSO machine into action, and exerted total and authoritative control from start to finish. This was not a performance that one could possibly imagine being a case of beating time and letting the orchestra get on with it – Bychkov revelled in his interpretation. The first movement offers many opportunities to drag slightly, to lean on the tempo as a phrase builds up, let it hang and then release it like a huge, clattering rollercoaster, a vertiginous woosh all but pinning the audience to its seats. Most satisfyingly, Bychkov was adept at separating the various stylistic registers in the music: Mahler switches between “pure music” and evocative pastiche, as well as downright sarcastic interjections. It would be a terrible mistake to approach the work with excess reverence and play it all as if it were Beethoven or Brahms. It demands a sense of humour, otherwise bathos is right round the corner. You could smell the cow dung in the second movement’s country dance, while the clarinets – often called upon to be the jokers of the pack – gave a marvellously rasping klezmer feel to the third movement’s strange funeral march.
There is nothing tongue-in-cheek about the anguish that opens the fourth movement, nor the triumph that brings it to a crashing close. It is pointless to single out individual sections of the orchestra for special praise: the symphony makes demands on every musician present. It came together goosebumpingly well.
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