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Wagner & Brahms, Gordan Nikolitch (violin), Tim Hugh (cello), London Symphony Orchestra, Myung-Whun Chung, Barbican, 5th December 2004 (MB)

This concert did not especially look an outstanding prospect on paper; the reality, however, was somewhat different. Myung-Whun Chung proved not only a revelation in Brahms’ titanic Symphony No.1, but also an outstanding collaborator in the only performance of the Hamburger’s Double Concerto that this reviewer has ever found remotely convincing. Only his Wagner, the overture to Tannhäuser – perhaps on paper Mr Chung’s strongest piece in this concert given his vast experience with opera – disappointed, and only then marginally.

The gem of the first half was a simply marvellous performance of Brahms’ concerto for violin and cello. The more one hears this work, the more I am convinced it works only with instrumentalists who have spent a considerable amount of time working together; the Double Concerto requires musical empathy between the soloists, and that is so often missing in big-star recordings of the work, cobbled together between hectic schedules elsewhere. I’ll go a stage further and write that it only works when the soloists are section leaders from an orchestra, since so much of this work’s haunting beauty lies in playing with an orchestra, not against it. The LSO is fortunate to have two distinguished leaders to play the piece (and, indeed, they have performed and recorded the work for Bernard Haitink) but at no time throughout this performance did one ever feel that we were listening to anything other than two supreme artists making what was, in essence, first rate chamber music with each other. The intimacy of this performance, and the way both musicians achieved a miraculous balance of texture and tone, meant we were hearing equal partners. The twilight romanticism of the second movement simply captivated the full house, as it weaved between melodic tenderness and granitic power, just as the finale lilted with gypsy-like buoyancy. Never have I been reminded so vividly of Brahms’ String Sextets in the first movement, as I was in this performance, as soloists, conductor and orchestra conjured up a refined sense of spatial colour that made the forces seem much smaller than they were. A real gem.

It would be foolish to underestimate the sheer greatness of Mr Chung’s visionary performance of Brahms’ Symphony No.1. I say that because we simply don’t hear Brahms played like this very often: Brahms the composer was a classicist, with everything he wrote in this symphony clearly defined as notationally complete, succinct and continuous. Mr Chung, however, apart from clearly having this in his sightline, had an unrivalled ability to coax extraordinary detail from his orchestra (just how often do you continuously hear the bass line in this work without it actually sounding turgid?); even more astonishing was how he was able to get to grips with the complex counterpoint, harmony and metric overlay of the symphony without compromising the musical integrity of its structure.

Brahms’ First opens like no other symphony, and it also causes more problems than any other symphony; performances succeed or fail at this point. Mr Chung got it as near perfect as could be imagined: a true un poco sostenuto opening that gave equal weight to each timpani stroke, a timpanist who was persuaded to play at f rather than the usual ff (and how extraordinary it was to hear the true ff thuds at the recapitulation) and with a prevailing dynamic that was in accordance with Brahms’ wishes. As the opening grew in stature, more and more details emerged: the outstanding internal balance he achieved in the woodwind and double horns, the clarity of the bassoons, the extraordinary way in which the strings seemed dissolved, to shadow the woodwind and violas rather than overpower them… by this stage, I had already lost my bet!

Throughout the first movement one was aware of an internal struggle between the quiescence of the more subliminal writing and the Sturm und Drang of the opening. Yet, it was a conflict of such skilful delineation, that no detail went unmissed. More revelations appeared in the second movement: the tempo was truly an andante (had it not been, the triplet eighths would not have been as distinct as they were,) but most eye-opening of all was the realization that for quite probably the first time in my listening experience, I was actually hearing a conductor play this movement with a profound understanding that it needed to be played in a single arch of sound. Equally plausible was the tempi he adopted for the short allegretto, faster than usual, but played with such sprite attention to detail (the dynamic changes in the exposition, for example, were spot on) that it sounded not just nimble footed but absolutely fresh.

The great final movement was a crowning achievement: notoriously difficult tempo markings seemed absolutely right, although perhaps one could argue that the horn phrasing was over deliberate, but it was the ending of the work that suggested Mr Chung is a master Brahms conductor. Put simply, the conductor – as he did throughout the performance – kept that sustained base line absolutely audible, and his timpanist firmly under control. A broadening at the final bar - rather than an accelerando dash during the bar – returned us to where we had begun: in to an atmosphere of true cataclysm. Brahms’ First doesn’t get much better than this.

Throughout, Mr Chung encouraged the LSO to play with superb control, sonority and tone colour (and how warmer, and darker, the strings sounded during this concert than they had during the previous two with Lorin Maazel). If Myung-Whun Chung was not already on the shortlist to succeed Sir Colin Davis, he must surely be on it now. This was, without question, outstanding conducting.

Marc Bridle


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