Magnus Lindberg: Al Largo (UK premiere)
Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto
Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto
William Walton: Symphony no.1
Agata Szymczewska violin
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä conductor
Royal Festival Hall 13 October 2010
Magnus Lindberg used to say that he never wrote slow music. Clearly then, a work entitled 'Al Largo' marks something of a departure. For better or worse, it is certainly out of character. His work is always distinctive, and if you're familiar with his earlier works you'd certainly recognise him from this. But it is interesting to hear what happens to his music when he slows it down. Suddenly you realise just how Romantic it all is. He is a composer who works in gestures, in emotive devices that create a human level beneath the industrial/modernist surface. Take that surface away and you start hearing a lot of Strauss, Mahler even. It does seem like a regressive step, although Lindberg was never an aesthetic polemicist. You can't accuse him of hypocrisy, but I'm tempted to accuse him of selling out.
But tempo apart, all the usual Lindberg traits are there. Every single texture and line has an icy purity, a real focus and conviction that is all too rare in new music. And there are fast passages in this piece, each a welcome reminder of earlier times, that feel for multiple agogic levels with the fastest layer a sort of base unit for other, more complex rhythmic processes. His orchestration is as acute as ever too. This is a really tough score for the orchestra, but their efforts are well rewarded. In general though, the work is experimental at best, a promising indicator of wider artistic horizons ahead for its composer, but not a patch on his earlier music.
Potential is also the word that springs to mind when listening to the young violinist Agata Szymczewska. On the strength of this performance, I suspect she is going to be one of the great violinists of our times. She's not there yet though, not quite anyway. Her reading of the Mendelssohn was cautious and, dare I say it, naïve. That might be down to her age; she was born in 1985, meaning that many of the violinists playing this concerto on the London stage today have been been doing so since before she was born. We certainly get a new approach from her, and it is wonderful to hear a performance that is so unencumbered by performing tradition. She goes easy on the rubato, and tends to articulate the phrasing through subtle dynamic shifts rather than by emphasising cadences. Perhaps it is not naivety, perhaps it is sophistication, but I like the way she rescues this music from the worst Romantic excesses it is often subjected to; you could easily play Mendelssohn as if it were Wagner, but I suspect neither composer would thank you for it. Szymczewska is not quite as secure with her articulation as she needs to be, especially with such a well known work. Paradoxically, her tuning in the fast passage work was better than in the slow sections. Like Lindberg, her musical home is clearly the presto.
It is a real joy to watch Osmo Vänskä work. He has a small, spindly frame, and by eschewing tails in favour of a simple dinner jacket he just looks like just another member of the orchestra. But the energy that he transmits from the podium is phenomenal, and he has a seemingly inexhaustible repertoire of gestures and physical expressions, most of which involve his whole body.
He is just the man for Walton 1, a work where energy and drive are paramount. There are subtleties to the work that he overlooks, especially in the various ways that phrases join or are separated by rits and caesuras. But his approach works just as well and it involves pushing through the music and relying on the sheer momentum that the orchestra can offer. A top notch orchestra is clearly an indispensable aspect of this sort of approach, and it is clear that this is a man who has carved a distinctive interpretive niche by only working with the best. The strings and brass really gave it their all, and special mention should go to Lee Tsarmaklis, whose round yet penetrating power was the decisive factor in the success of many of the climaxes. Great playing from the lower strings too, all the strings actually, I don't think I've ever heard the ostinatos of the first movement or the fugue theme of the last punched out with such clarity. The slow movement was a little fast I thought, resulting in some slightly congested woodwind solos. But then everything in the symphony was fast, and it always seemed to work out in the end. In this work, Walton is always working towards a climax, but it is never the sort of climax you are expecting and it usually comes before you are expecting it. That is why Osmo Vänskä is the ideal conductor. He knows how to pull surprises out of his hat, and he knows how to make well-known music sound fresh and new just through microscopic changes in the placement of chords. Walton thrives on that stuff, and Osmo Vänskä clearly does too.