Vengerov, London Symphony Orchestra, Ticciati, Barbican Hall | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
Vengerov, London Symphony Orchestra, Ticciati, Barbican Hall
Youth gets a medal, Elgar's Enigma Variations reveal universal genius and a great violinist goes off piste
Her Majesty was making a rare concert-hall appearance to present the Queen’s Medal for Music, and any little Englanders in the audience might have been tempted to link royalty to Elgar’s Enigma Variations. But conductor Robin Ticciati, with a generosity and wisdom beyond his 29 years, raised this orchestral masterpiece to the universal level it deserves. Elgar’s "friends pictured within" trod air and revealed every aspect of their often shy, beautiful souls.
It should come as no surprise that the score transcends labels of nationality, provinciality even. After all, what is "Nimrod" but the portrait of a German, August Jaeger, based on music by a German (the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Piano Sonata)? Ticciati and an LSO on supremely supple form left us in no doubt that it captures the span of a great symphonic Adagio in a matter of minutes, landing on each reiteration of its familiar variation-tune as the movement builds with a miraculous sense of space. This is what already makes Ticciati a great conductor – his infallible instinct for tempo rubato, of the free but never loose phrasing which, alongside refinements of orchestration, gives Elgar his special warmth and personality.
Dissolve the traces of Max’s more familiar acid and essentially the tunes sound more like vague doodles
For that reason, the variations either side of "Nimrod" were just as wonderful in their different ways: the graciousness of "Winifred Norbury" arching in heartfelt lines effortlessly shared between strings and woodwind, the light embroidery of "Dorabella" given a touch of Puck-like waspishness in the muted violins’ fantasy darts. Between well-timed bouts of boisterousness, other characters came to life through human song, culminating in the cellos’ great aria in Variation XII - all expressive stops pulled out when the violins join them – and the inner pain of parting when a barely audible solo clarinet (Andrew Marriner) meditates on a calm sea and the timpani, even more on the cusp of silence, throb like a ship’s engine.
This was the great event of a curious evening. Equalling it in importance, and a rapturous reception, was the revelation of the medal recipient – not, as previously, an individual, but a collective national treasure and world-class team to shout about, the 64-year old National Youth Orchestra. Apt, then, that Ticciati should have once been a member, and that the recuperating Sir Colin Davis, whom he was replacing, has been so closely associated with some of the NYO’s many finest concerts. It was an inspired touch, too, to give five sharers in the award, headed by leader Roberto Ruisi, places among the LSO strings for the Enigma performance.
The prizegiving was introduced by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who still seems like an unlikely Master of the Queen’s Music. He’d written an appropriately big and noisy new fanfare, Her Majesty’s Welcome, along the lines of Richard Strauss’s more elongated festive pieces. Dissolve the traces of Max’s more familiar acid, though, and essentially the tunes sound more like vague doodles. Wouldn’t it make better sense to appoint a more populist but still superior melody-maker like Carl Davis to the royal post? Anyway, the real point of this was to involve young wind and brass players from the London boroughs participating in the LSO’s On Track scheme, and very splendid they sounded in the company of their counterparts in the orchestra.
Sellout guarantee for this event had been assured, long before its medal-giving status had been decided, by the presence of Russian violin royalty Maxim Vengerov (pictured above right by Naim Chidiak) in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Despite the expected charisma and the opulent, dark tones of Vengerov’s Stradivarius, the first movement turned out to be a scary ride. Tchaikovsky’s natural flow of inspiration was strenuously freighted, and Vengerov went off piste at several points, badly so near the start of the cadenza. Ticciati and the LSO seemed to be as flexibly alert to the dangers as they could be, but what can you do when the soloist doesn’t appear to be interacting with his fellow players?
Tchaikovsky’s Canzonetta restored some of the old Vengerov magic in introspective song, and more clarinet soulfulness embroidered the reprise, while the finale, taken at a furious vivacissimo, was probably worth the one near-derailment when our violinist left the poor horn trailing. The Bach encore was poised, but didn’t quite draw me in as a solo violin can so hauntingly do in a big hall. Vengerov's unique, no doubt about it, but these days he needs to listen to his orchestra: that, after all, is what would have made for a concerto partnership worthy to sit alongside the Elgar. In the light of which it will probably be a case of arise, Sir Robin in a decade or so.