Tuesday 26 May 2009

Znaider/LSO/Davis - Elgar, Stravinsky, and Brahms, 24 May 2009

Barbican Hall

Elgar – Introduction and Allegro for strings, op.47
Stravinsky – Orpheus
Brahms – Violin concerto in D major, op.77

Nikolaj Znaider (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

Elgar and his music have had a long history with the London Symphony Orchestra, indeed one that extends back to the orchestra’s first season, in which the composer conducted a concert of his own music, including the premiere of the Introduction and Allegro for strings, op. 47. Sir Colin Davis, now the orchestra’s president, has considerable form in Elgar’s music and here conducted a fine account of the Introduction and Allegro. A large string section played with a great deal of vibrato, consonant – for what, if anything, this is worth – with Elgar’s own practice, whatever the occasional weird fanatic might claim. The music undulated like the Malvern Hills, gentle but not uneventful. I thought the fugal writing very well handled, with welcome echoes of Die Meistersinger in its ‘busyness’. If the end result was just a little overblown, that seems to me a reflection of the music rather than the performance. I wish I could be more enthusiastic about this work but it has never really ‘spoken’ to me; nor did it on this occasion. There was a very odd claim in the programme notes: ‘Since Elgar’s time, the sound of a string orchestra seems to possess a peculiarly “British” flavour.’ Of course, there are British – or, probably better, English – examples of string orchestral writing after Elgar, but one’s perspective would have to be parochial in the extreme to listen to works by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók, Berg, Strauss, Webern, Honegger, Boulez, Lutosławski, Xenakis, et al., and discern ‘a peculiarly “British” flavour’.

I cannot summon up a great deal of enthusiasm for Stravinsky’s Orpheus either. Stravinsky is far too great a composer for there not to be passages of interest but I find that this particular ballet does go on a bit, not least on account of its almost unremitting ‘whiteness’. Moreover, this latter quality seems no longer to possess a polemical edge, as in some of the composer’s neo-classical scores; it is sometimes simply dull. That said, the opening sound of the LSO was most inviting: seemingly issuing an invitation to take a journey though several centuries of retelling of the Orpheus myth, rather as Birtwistle has done more recently. In the Air de danse, guest leader Zsolt-Tihámer Visontay’s solo was well attuned to Stravinsky’s peculiar use of the violin, reminding me a little of The Soldier’s Tale; the violin is after all supposed to represent here the Angel of Death. A pair of flutes also weaved some cold, diatonic magic. Davis conjured up an eeriness to the Interlude, in which Orpheus makes his way to Hades, skilful harp playing evoking Monteverdi. Later, a pair of oboes echoed Bach’s cantatas but also foreshadowed The Rake’s Progress, as would a subsequent brass fanfare. And the final apotheosis was gravely beautiful, if still very white. We are all accustomed to Stravinsky’s time-travelling but I am not quite convinced that on this occasion it ultimately adds up to something greater than the sum of some interesting parts. Perhaps a performance with greater bite might have convinced, yet I am far from sure.

However, it would be eccentric, to say the least, to entertain doubts concerning the stature of Brahms’s violin concerto. I have no intention of trying; this is a masterpiece, pure and simple, its stature amply confirmed by the present performance. I sensed a note of defiance in Davis’s ‘old-school’ opening to the first movement; it certainly set the scene for a truly titanic struggle. There would be no easy answers in this performance, for a great deal was at stake from the outset. Davis ensured that the minor mode was very much in the ascendant prior to Nikolaj Znaider’s first entry. Znaider’s flawless, silky tone impressed every bit as much as it had in his performance earlier in the month of Schoenberg’s violin concerto. His solo line throughout the performance was extraordinarily nuanced, which is not to say that in any sense it lacked vehemence, especially in the perfect accomplishment of his double-stopping. One could see and hear him engaging with the orchestral musicians; however, whilst his chamber technique proved invaluable, there could be no doubt that this remained a concerto performance. Znaider and Davis imparted a great dramatic thrust and breadth throughout the vast first movement, showing that one need not preclude the other; indeed, one heightened the other. Unwanted applause marked the pause before a sublime account of the slow movement. Davis’s Mozartian experience shone through in the opening Harmoniemusik, the splendid oboe solo first amongst wind equals rather than a competitor to the violin. Both soloist and conductor, the latter revealing a wealth of orchestral detail, ensured that the Adagio sounded as a continuation of the complex narrative initiated in the first movement, rather than a mere ‘contrast’. Znaider’s line exuded longing whilst never sounding maudlin or saccharine; here was the same rigour we had heard in Schoenberg, indeed the same rigour that so influenced Schoenberg. With the immediate attack of the finale there was finally a sense of release. After his initial solo, Znaider permitted himself a well-deserved smile but there was still much to do. The movement was urgent but never rushed, a cornucopia of endless melody, every line in every part being made to count. Urgency was imparted by implacable rhythm, which in no sense should be taken to imply inflexibility, a lesson many musicians should take to heart. This was a hard-won victory but unquestionably a victory.