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With Beethoven's Eroica Symphony and Sibelius's Violin Concerto lurking behind every bush and tree these years, do we really need a visiting London Philharmonic Orchestra, with Kurt Masur conducting and Sarah Chang as soloist, to reveal these familiar marvels to us yet again?
Well, as it happened, yes, we do, because on this occasion, under that conductor and with that soloist in the Sibelius, these works were revealed and fulfilled as they seldom are, even by similarly distinguished executants. Both works sprang vividly to life, in detail and in the large, and as you listened, enrapt, you were conscious not of how well you knew them but of how exciting they can be, and of how much you had still to learn about them.
The concert began with the Sibelius concerto, which posed a brief initial difficulty. The pianissimo high-string oscillation of the opening suggests a kind of limitless stratosphere against which the violin's entry floats like a gull almost out of sight in a winter sky. This magical effect is so fragile it can be lost in the shuffle of an audience not yet quite ready with its full attention.
That was the only setback, however, in an absolutely riveting account of the concerto. I had not heard Sarah Chang since she was a gifted child, stunningly capable even then, but just a prodigy. Now, in her mid-20s, Chang is a mature artist in the fullest sense of the term. Her Heifetzian pitch, her sound, her sense, her trills, her dynamic range, her passion, her assurance, her deep penetration of the substance and nature of the music all combine to make her the best violinist I have heard in years, surely one of the foremost virtuosi of her time.
The best thing about her virtuosity is that she uses it as the merest ladder on which to climb to the highest pinnacles of the music in hand. Her identification with Sibelius's vision was tender, fearless, total. Technique, temperament and the most delicate respect for the smallest detail of the score walked hand in hand. As thrilling as the fierce climaxes of rhythm and tension were those time-stopping hushes in which the gentlest, most haunting lyricism held sway, shaped with serene perfection. This was the most compelling performance of this famous piece I have heard since that of the legendary Ida Haendel in her heyday. Perhaps the highest compliment to Chang's magnificent performance is that the orchestra and conductor Masur were as intent on it and as wrapped up in it as the soloist herself. Their account of the score and hers of the solo role seemed to issue from a single matrix of thought and feeling: the composer's.
And then, after intermission, the Eroica, another musical matter altogether, but again in great hands.
Masur, now in his late 70s, is a surprising, benign giant of a man.
From the audience, when he conducts, he seems barely to move, teetering a bit on those long legs but only seldom gesturing with those arms. He seems to confine himself to the merest, most minimal but absolutely specific indications of what he wants, to provoke a telling accent, to stiffen a rhythm, to articulate a fugal passage, to encourage the dwindling of bulk in a diminuendo.
When the players are playing, he lets them play, though in the full, unwavering light of his complete attention. The focus never wavers. His face and hands, reserved for the players, must be a study.
Under his guidance, the Eroica unrolled like fate, and like the marvellous orchestral fabric it is, every detail attended to with skill and with wise respect for the humanity and scope of this extraordinary musical utterance. There was a great deal of applause, but there were no encores. Quite right. After such performances, the musicians had given their utmost and the audience had heard all it could possibly absorb.