fri 31/10/2014

Mutter, London Symphony Orchestra, Previn, Barbican Hall | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

Mutter, London Symphony Orchestra, Previn, Barbican Hall

Familiar musical friends deliver some unfamiliar new American music from Harbison and Previn

Violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter had a silvery gleam to her playing last night

It’s over 30 years since André Previn left his post as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. But once you’re part of the LSO’s treasured ‘family of artists’, the orchestra never lets go, year upon year inviting you back for Christmas, New Year, weddings, bar mitzvahs, any occasion going. The same with the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter – briefly in the last decade Previn’s fifth wife, though they share the same platform with just as much ease now that they’re divorced.

Sunday’s unusually diverting concert formed part of the LSO’s "Artist Portrait" of Mutter: a portrait hardly required in one sense, for we all know what she looks and sounds like, and have so for decades. It’s easy enough to argue against the LSO’s continued cosiness with their ‘family of artists’ – what about the excitement of new blood? But aside from their artistry, big names bring the big audiences that every orchestra needs, even the comparatively well-endowed LSO. 

The heart of Previn's music remains warm, pensive, and eloquently European

And along with trotting warhorses the LSO’s family do sometimes bring unusual repertoire. Without Previn’s advocacy, when we would we have heard the intriguing and entertaining Third Symphony of John Harbison? An American eclectic approaching his mid 70s, Harbison has so far managed to win the Pulitzer Prize for music (1987), write five symphonies, and make operas from The Great Gatsby and The Winter’s Tale without raising an eyebrow in Britain, let alone making a dent.

The symphony (dated 1990) began with descending cadences suggesting it was reaching its end – a very Haydn-esque joke. Other references and sounds in its 25-minute journey took us far beyond Haydn’s ken. Jazz wandered in; Sibelius too; plus hammered grimaces, snake-charming winds, and the semi-pitched clunks of the lujon, a percussion instrument dreamed up by the Modern Jazz Quartet’s John Lewis. The five linked sections’ block construction restricted the symphony’s momentum. But nothing lessened its imaginative textures, technical finish (often the mark of a Walter Piston pupil), or the intriguing push-and-pull between forces trying to end the work’s argument and those trying to push it forward.

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