Friday, December 1, 2006

London Philharmonic Orchestra

Kurt Masur conducted a warmly phrased, structurally solid reading of Brahms's Second Symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on Wednesday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Typical of Masur's work, the performance was neither perfunctory nor profound, but simply an engagingly straightforward, extroverted account of the score.

The concert was billed as Masur's last as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic. More's the pity, then, that the originally announced Fourth Symphony of Bruckner was replaced by the overfamiliar Brahms (which, in a case of double overkill, will receive two more performances this week from the National Symphony). Masur is no one's idea of a probing Brucknerian, but he knows how to pull maximum drama from the Fourth -- a massive symphony that's always something of an event when heard live -- and this orchestra would have made a fine meal of it.

As it was, the LPO's playing was memorable, boasting luscious, character-rich winds, burnished horns, pungent brass, throaty cellos and febrile, lean-toned violins -- evident in both the Brahms and in a punchy performance of Liszt's "Les Preludes." They played with winning conviction, too, in the Sibelius Violin Concerto, though star soloist Sarah Chang has had happier evenings. Her excitable, Gypsy-tinged phrasing and insistent vibrato were at odds with the crystalline Nordic cast of this score, and faster passages brought playing that sounded approximate and drifted rhythmically out of sync with the orchestra. Masur, though, made sure the piece soared.

-- Joe Banno

Vermeer String Quartet

In Germany, Beethoven's String Quartet No. 2 in G is sometimes referred to as the "Komplimentier-Quartett" -- the "quartet of bows and curtsys." But in the hands of the Vermeer Quartet, whose members appeared at the Terrace Theater on Wednesday as part of their final tour as an ensemble, there was nothing fussy or even particularly polite about the work. The Vermeer players take a robust, full-bodied approach to their music, and this was deeply satisfying Beethoven, with presence and character to spare.

But the Beethoven was merely a warm-up to the evening's centerpiece, a genuinely stunning performance of Benjamin Britten's String Quartet No. 3, Op. 94. Written largely in Venice the year before he died, the quartet was Britten's last major work, and it's very much a swan song.

Intensely personal and full of intimate anguish, the quartet seems composed of questions and confessions, the preoccupations of a man near the end of his life. The Vermeer captured every nuance of this extraordinary work -- from the poignant delicacy of the Solo movement to the demonic waltz of the Burlesque -- with subtlety, understanding and quiet power.

Perhaps the impact of the Britten made it hard to shift gears afterward; at any rate, the Vermeer closed with a reading of Schumann's String Quartet No. 3 in A, Op. 41, that never really left the ground. It was expertly played, but even its most tender moments felt sinewy, a performance that could have used less muscle and more feathers.

-- Stephen Brookes

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