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Marin Alsop

Barbican, London

WHENTchaikovsky wrote his Sixth Symphony I don't think he envisaged a last movement full of grunts and growls. Then again, at that time a woman conducting the work was as unlikely as a revolution in Russia and emancipation in Britain.

Marin Alsop, though, is a passionate person who lives the music as much as any conductor around today, and possibly ever. The Adagio lamentoso of the Sixth comes after a roller-coaster ride through the emotions and although Alsop's throated accompaniment, surely worthy of jazz balladeer Keith Jarrett at his most irritating, was off-putting, she seemed to care almost as much as the Russian songsmith in getting the finale right.

Tchaikovsky topped himself not long after completing the Sixth, so it always has the feeling off a self-styled requiem about it. Its slow start through the voice of a bassoon makes this one of the few symphonies that works by opening with an adagio. That ups the pace into a waltz but without the joys of, say, Strauss.

The third movement is a march that could be Tchaikovsky rushing towards his own death, which surely arrives in that heartbreaking climax that Alsop, as she usually does, rushes into before the music of third movement barely ends.

The London Symphony orchestra's applause of Alsop at the end was justification for the grunting and growling.

But before that Leonard Bernstein's Serenade delighted us. Bernstein composed the piece as a musical interpretation of Plato's Symposium after re-reading it on holiday, with the five movements scored for solo violin, strings, harp and percussion. The movements of this concerto to love are named after the voices it depicts: Phaedrus Pausanias, Aristophanes, Eryximachus, Agathon and Socrates Alcibiades.


There is nothing Alsop loves more than to connect with her audience not only through the music but also through speech. A former pupil of Bernstein, she took us on a run through of the five movements with musical accompaniment before launching into it real time.

Canadian violinist James Ehnes was magnificent, particularly through the opening movement where he gently introduces us to Bernstein's notebook sketches that would become part of West Side Story, and Agathon, the adagio, in which he fully mastered the melancholia of the movement to Alsop's satisfaction.

The final movement was pure Bernstein; it could have been lifted from one of his film soundtracks, and Ehnes, Alsop and the LSO delighted in performing it, probably knowing that this would be the last bit of light relief with Tchaikovsky just over the horizon.

Brahms' Tragic Overture started the evening and it was the old man at his Beethoven best. In the opening and closing movements, Brahms nodded towards his greatest inspiration, finding his own voice in the middle.

I wonder if Bernstein ever thought that he would be the filling between a Tragic Overture and Tchaikovsky Pathetique sandwich. I doubt it.

Review by Peter Wilson

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