Mendelssohn: Overture Ruy Blas
Schumann: Violin Concerto
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 “Italian”
John Eliot Gardiner, conductor
Alina Ibragimova, violin
London Symphony Orchestra
Barbican, London, 23.3.14
Everybody was working well outside their comfort zones this evening: John Eliot Gardiner led a modern instrument band, the LSO performed in ‘historically informed’ mode, and Alina Ibragimova tried her hand at the Schumann, hardly core repertoire for any violinist. The sheer professionalism on display ensured that the technical side of the performance was rarely compromised, but there was a noticeable lack of ease or flow from the orchestra, and the resulting tension only occasionally raised the excitement levels.
Gardiner and the LSO are not complete strangers: they have worked together before, so both sides must know by now what to expect. Given the difference in interpretive traditions between this orchestra and his own ensembles, Gardiner was uncompromising in his approach. A set of old-fashioned cavalry timps was the only concession to period instrumentation from the orchestra, but Gardiner reduced the orchestra by about a third, and had the strings stand (they sat for the concerto). Vibrato was kept to a minimum, though not completely prohibited, and the orchestral playing in every work was characterised by hard accents and carefully manicured phrases.
Ruy Blas opened with austere brass fanfares, setting the tone for the whole concert. Despite the small orchestra, Gardiner drew a large forceful sound from the players, deliberate and unambiguous. The overture was well shaped, and built up well to its conclusion. And whatever privations Gardiner subjected his players to, their intonation and balance were never under threat. A strident opener, but conspicuously lacking in Mendelssohnian humour or levity.
Schumann’s Violin Concerto is a controversial work and a rarity on the concert platform. There is some great music here, but the weaknesses are all too clear. The structure manages to be simultaneously conventional to a fault and incoherent. The orchestral writing is often turgid and needlessly opaque. And the solo part is close to impossible, not for its virtuoso acrobatics so much as its indifference to the mechanics of the instrument.
So it needs all the help it can get, and adding into the equation a modern orchestra attempting to emulate period performance practice does it no favours at all. Many of the orchestral textures, particularly in the first movement, are complex to the point of utter obscurity, and sullen and grey in their colouring. Modern configuration string instruments playing without vibrato only exacerbate the problem. That said, the LSO strings can always be relied on to bring clarity and elegance, and the slow second movement, the concerto’s main redeeming feature, certainly had many moments of simple, unadulterated beauty.
Alina Ibragimova is no stranger to period practice herself, but chose, possibly to Gardiner’s chagrin, to perform on a modern configuration violin with plenty of vibrato. Although this concerto isn’t going to be the ideal match for any player, many aspects of her style fit it well. Much of the music is set in the instrument’s lower register, where Ibragimova’s viola-like tone is rich and satisfying. Her projection is also valuable here, especially as she is able to maintain the rich elegance of her tone even at the loudest dynamics. And then there is her technical proficiency; the sheer difficultly of this concerto really sets it apart, but Ibragimova found a convincing and highly musical way through all of its vicissitudes.
The tensions between Gardiner’s approach and the LSO’s sound became even more apparent in the Italian Symphony that made up the second half. Were this Gardiner’s own Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, his heavy accents, emphatically shaped phrases and fast tempos would all make sense. Gut strings and narrow bore winds give less tone, so a more agogic approach with more shaping of phrases is required. But the LSO, even with reduced forces, gives a big, sustained sound, on which many of these details feel like overkill.
In fact, the balance within the orchestra was very well managed, and it was clear that everyone was listening to each other. Although the violins (with seconds on the right) were reduced in number, the low strings remained well-staffed, and the six double basses gave a rich, warm basis to the textures.
Gardiner’s tempos were fast, but they usually are anyway for the outer movements of this symphony. The heavy accents and broad dynamic swells used to articulate the phrases made the opening movement seem all the faster. Some elegant playing from the woodwind soloists brought valuable lightness and elegance to the inner movements. The finale really was fast, by any standards, almost too fast for the LSO woodwind section – which is saying something. They managed to keep it together though, and Gardiner took his foot off the accelerator for the quieter interludes.
A journey of discovery then, particularly for the players. Gardiner is to be congratulated for sticking to his guns on matters of interpretation and for not giving the orchestra an easy time. The sheer versatility of the LSO is amply demonstrated by their ability to do what Gardiner asks, and without any serious compromise to their consistently high technical standards. But what about the audience? A collaboration like this ought to offer the best of both worlds, which it occasionally does, but much of the time it feels like neither one thing nor the other.