Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Polish CO/Vengerov - Mozart and Tchaikovsky, 18 November 2013

Barbican Hall

Mozart – Violin Concerto no.4 in D major, KV 218
Violin Concerto no.5 in A major, KV 219
Tchaikovsky – Sérénade mélancolique, op.26
Souvenir d’un lieu cher, op.42 (orch, David Walter)
Valse-Scherzo, op.23

Polish Chamber Orchestra
Maxim Vengerov (violin/conductor)

I had greatly been looking forward to my first opportunity to hear Maxim Vengerov live. Sadly, the reality proved somewhat disappointing. It is not that there was not in many respects a good deal to admire; this was no catastrophe, nor indeed anything remotely akin to that. However, I came away thinking that the concert itself had been somewhat ill-conceived, and that that had led to a number of more immediate performing shortcomings.

First, the programme transpired to be as imbalanced in practice as it had appeared on paper. To have two Mozart violin concertos in one half was odd, but doubtless could have been made to work in an outstanding performance. To have a second ‘half’, though – in reality, more akin to a final ‘third’ – which comprised three slight, encore-style pieces by Tchaikovsky really did not make any sense at all. Would it not have made for a more balanced, if still not especially revealing, programme to have had Mozart and Tchaikovsky in both halves?

Vengerov has devoted a considerable amount of time in recent years to conducting; indeed, he will, as part of the Barbican’s Artist Spotlight, conduct Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade later in the season. On this occasion, though, and especially in the Mozart works, it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that he would have been better served by having a separate conductor. The Fourth Violin Concerto opened promisingly, Vengerov noticeably attentive to the need to elicit a variegated sound and textures from the players of the Polish Chamber Orchestra. However, once he began to play, the players were largely left to fend for themselves. Acting as soloist and conductor is an enormously difficult task, and in reality, few musicians prove fully equal to it. (Daniel Barenboim would be an obvious example; at this stage in his career, having someone to conduct him in Mozart would most likely prove superfluous. Brahms, though, would be another matter.) The Mozart that emerged, in both works, proved somewhat on the bland side: pleasant enough, but alas, that is not nearly enough. There are certainly, contrary to the strange claim made by Richard Wigmore in his programme note, darker undercurrents in these works, which demand the performers’ – and the audience’s – attention. The D major concerto’s slow movement sang sweetly, but the Rondeau seemed to run out of steam, sounding rhapsodic rather than full of integrated contrasts. A firmer hand at the helm would surely have helped. Perhaps what most surprised, though, were the occasional passages in which Vengerov’s intonation was at odds with the orchestra’s, or indeed, in the first-movement cadenza, with what he had just played.

A similar pattern was followed in the A major concerto. Vigour arrived at last in the ‘Turkish’ section of the finale, but given the listless quality of what surrounded it, sounded more incongruous than anything else. The Polish players were generally excellent, sectional leaders in particular, but at least in this hall, a larger body of strings (we had would often have been welcome. Throughout, I could not help but contrast the performance with the Mozart we had heard recently across the road in Milton Court, from the Royal Northern Sinfonia and Thomas Zehetmair. Then, every phrase, every note, had been invested with life, with meaning; Mozart had scintillated and beguiled in equal measure, even when I might in the abstract have queried Zehetmair’s tempi. Vengerov is not yet, at least, a soloist-director of that calibre, and Mozart requires no less.

I could not help but wonder whether Vengerov had imbibed too much of Tchaikovsky’s view of Mozart as all sweetness and light, a nineteenth-century confectioner’s view of a composer whose true essence is fathomless profundity, however lightly worn at times. That might have made at least for a programming idea: a concert, for instance, including Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Orchestral Suite, ‘Mozartiana’. The collection of three pieces we heard, though undoubtedly more stylish, did not add up to more than the sum of its parts. There were wonderful touches, for instance of portamento, never overdone, and there were virtuoso fireworks to be savoured, for those who care for such things. The latter were despatched with the aplomb one would have expected, though elsewhere, intonational problems occasionally resurfaced. The central Souvenir d’un lieu cher, here orchestrated for strings by David Walter, was charming and well-proportioned in performance, yet the Sérénade mélancolique emerged, despite the idiomatic if somewhat small-scale string sound, as meandering and longwinded. In that respect, the fault is probably Tchaikovsky’s. Vengerov’s admirers, and they clearly remain numerous, went wild following the Valse scherzo, which at least was not inflated into something that it is not. It was difficult, though, not to ask whether they would have have reacted similarly, irrespective of what they had heard. A concert, then, more for fans of the violinist then for Mozartians.