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S & H Concert Review

Mozart & Shostakovich; Emanuel Ax (pf); BBC Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin (con); Barbican; 12th May 2004 (AR)

Mozart concerti are very often coupled in concert with the symphonies of Bruckner, Mahler, and Shostakovich, yet to my mind this is arbitrary programming since Mozartís musical world does not easily synchronise with any of these composers. This concert was yet another illustration of this.

As it was, Emanuel Ax contributed the highlight of the evening, his playing of Mozartís K466 differing from the romantic inflections one often hears in this score, with Ax avoiding any hint of soggy sentiment. His handling of the Allegro was intimate and introvert, yet his clarity of tone had a wonderfully direct sternness and strength, producing contradictory sensations. Ax brilliantly spun an inspired elision of the Beethovenesque and improvisatory jazz in the cadenza. The Romance was refreshingly free from the turgid romanticism which often mars this movement. Ax played with all the effervescence of sparkling champagne (Grand Cru) - bubbling, intoxicating. In the Rondo Ax sobered up and played in a free-floating style again making the music more akin to improvised jazz. Throughout Ax made Mozartís score sound uncannily contemporary. What let this otherwise radically played performance down was Slatkinís lightweight, string-orientated reading, which treated the score as mere token backing, with timpani and brass being barely audible.

Slatkinís conducting of Shostakovichís Eleventh Symphony ĎThe Year 1905í in G minor, Op. 103 (1957) was slack and fragmented from beginning to end, with orchestral balances woefully distorted and congested. The conductor does not seem to have taken into account the Barbican Hallís acoustics, with the music often sounding too loud but paradoxically hollow and lacking in real power.

In Palace Square: Adagio the strings played with an eerie pianissimo only to be marred by the accompanying timpani taps, which broke the sense of stillness and distance required here. However, the muted trumpet solos were suitably piercing, conjuring up a sense of poignancy and alienation. Slatkinís sluggish tempi, though, negated a sense of organic growth, too often shattering any sense of movement and unfolding.

The Ninth of January: Allegro lacked bite and attack, with the timpani and bass-drum having minimal impact, in stark contrast to Pletnevís recent RFH performance with the Russian National Orchestra, in which they had huge intensity and effect. Indeed, throughout this movement (and the rest of the symphony) John Chimesí timpani playing could only be described as ineffectual.

In the opening of the second Adagio Slatkinís tempi were again slack with the pizzicato passages sounding weak and fragmented. The Alarm Bell: Allegro non troppo opened with appropriately grainy and muscular string tones, especially from the cellosí stabbing, staccato strokes. Things drastically deteriorated around nine minutes into the first climax where brass and percussion sounded grotesquely distorted.

Mercifully, the following passages for soft strings were played with great sensitivity and refinement. Here we heard by far the finest playing of the evening which came from Celia Craigís cor anglais solo and the spooky solos from the deep-grunting bassoon and contra-bassoon.

Unfortunately, the closing passages were mere bombast where exultancy was sacrificed to decibels - one was deafened rather than elated. The final few bars were disastrous: not only were the tolling bells too loud and clangourous but the concluding chime came in far too late resulting in an embarrassing after-echo in which Slatkin had no option but to keep his arm raised until the reverberation slowly died away. This error was an all too apt ending for a lack-lustre and ragged performance.

Slatkin, an accomplished conductor of English music, here appeared to have little instinct for Shostakovich.

Alex Russell


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