sun 26/10/2014

Vengerov, LSO, Pappano, Barbican | Classical music reviews, news & interviews

Vengerov, LSO, Pappano, Barbican

Orchestra on thrilling form for three British works including a world premiere

Maxim Vengerov: commanding in BrittenPhoto by Naim Chidiac courtesy of Abu Dhabi Festival

An all-British programme – with plenty of Italian flavours – opened to a sold-out Barbican Hall with the overture In the South (Alassio), composed by Elgar during a stay on the Italian Riviera. It isn’t one of his most memorable scores, but it still provides plenty of interest with typical Elgarian exuberance, an unexpected martial episode (imagining the Roman army), and a muted viola solo. It flits from scene to scene like a holiday scrapbook, and Antonio Pappano handled the fluid tempo and dynamic changes with aplomb.

Maxim Vengerov’s commanding performance of the Britten concerto came next. There have perhaps been more angst-ridden readings of this work, with the Russian virtuoso true to form emphasising the lyrical elements. However, he certainly didn’t shy away from jagged intensity when the score demanded it, and his second movement was sprightly and light of touch. It is over a decade now since his much praised recording of the concerto for EMI which marked his first engagement with the work. It is clear that the intervening years have only deepened his respect for this bona fide masterpiece. The mature Vengerov may be a more reserved stage presence than the flashy swaggerer of old, but the energy is still there in the music, and the sheer technical mastery undiminished.

Pappano’s experience in the opera pit and as a piano accompanist was in evidence in his sensitive conducting, ever attentive to the soloist, allowing Vengerov to lead and the music to breathe. The audience was clearly angling for an encore as the applause continued and drew the violinist out for a fourth curtain call, but it was not to be. I very much doubt anyone felt short-changed.

Peter Maxwell Davies, photo by Martin LengemannAfter the interval, the opening strains of the world premiere performance of Peter Maxwell Davies’s 10th symphony formed an unexpectedly smooth transition from the Britten still ringing in our ears. Though later dipping into spikily atonal areas, this new work mostly gravitates to tonal centres and offers a broadly accessible sound world, richly scored with extended woodwind and tuned percussion sections. Burbling marimba chords and the subterranean purr of contrabass clarinet proved particularly memorable touches, while the clang of hard mallets on tubular bells and vibes depicting the sound of construction were absolutely central to the work’s purpose – a tribute to architect of the Italian baroque Francesco Borromini.

To this end, as well as the musical invocation of building work, Davies has set a collection of texts about and by Borromini, sung by choir and baritone (the finely drilled London Symphony Chorus and Markus Butter). The texts themselves are fascinating, ranging from a contemporary satirical sonnet deriding the architect’s work (in the first movement) to an extraordinary "sick note" written by Borromini on his deathbed, matter-of-factly describing his suicide attempt and apologising for being absent from his duties. The Sprechgesang of the baritone soloist, interspersed with the choir intoning the names of Borromini churches, brought the work to a close, with the orchestra dropping out and the choir fading out on a low hum. Pappano and the LSO shone in a very well rehearsed performance of this substantial and complex new work.

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