This concert (along with that on May 8) were to have been conducted by Pierre Boulez and, while one regrets that illness has prevented his doing so, the return of Peter Eötvös after his successful concert with the London Symphony Orchestra last season could hardly have been more welcome or, given the programmes, more apposite.
Relatively little heard these days, Debussy’s Nocturnes (1899) is the most impressionist of all his orchestral works and one whose understated depths are easily passed over in all but the most sensitive hearings. That it received here – Eötvös bringing an ominous unease to the shifting textures and crepuscular harmonies of ‘Nuages’, then (rightly) unfolding ‘Fêtes’ with a slow-burning momentum that neither dampened down the capricious high spirits of its outer sections nor blunted the impact of the processional which briefly though devastatingly assumes centre-stage. A sizable number of female voices was evident in the closing ‘Sirènes’, which perhaps made interplay with the orchestra less intensive than it could be: on a marginally lower level of inspiration than its predecessors, this remains a fitting conclusion in its gradual fining down of tensions towards a calm ending that nonetheless exudes a simmering expectancy such as was tellingly realised here.
Time was when Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto (1916) was a rarity in concert halls (at least outside of Poland), but the piece has established a firm footing these past two decades – not least through the advocacy of a younger generation able to reconcile its willingness towards sensual overkill with a formal logic at once intuitive and disciplined. Not least among these players is Christian Tetzlaff, whose refined and sometimes even ascetic manner might risk submergence by a sizable orchestra (piano and celesta much in evidence) under a less-proficient conductor. Hand in hand with this clarity went a secure grasp of structure – the work’s four main sections enfolded within a continuous evolution where salient motifs and themes remain recognisable almost in spite of themselves. The brief cadenza was incisively rendered, before being swept aside by an ecstatic orchestral response then a coda in which the music seems as if to dissolve.
Authoritative if not flawless in technique (notably those stratospheric harmonics as treacherous as they are radiant), Tetzlaff amply reaffirmed his prowess in music whose luxuriance is shot-through with aching regret: a pointed contrast to the austere ‘Melodia’ from Bartók’s Solo Violin Sonata which he offered as an encore.
Not the least influence on the concerto is Scriabin. His Poem of Ecstasy (1908) made for a relatively short second half (subtitling it ‘Symphony No.4’ makes little difference and is historically debatable in any case). So much extraneous commentary has been written on the composer’s later music in general, and this piece in particular, that its formal precision is all too easily overlooked. Not that Eötvös made any such mistake with a performance that pointed up its sonata-like development from the handful of pithy and contrasted motifs set out in the opening minutes. The trumpet-dominated central climax was finely prepared, while the apotheosis never lost sight of its superimposing ideas with a poise and ingenuity worthy of Bruckner. Maybe the closing bars could have been a shade less inhibited – Scriabin’s sometimes alleged ‘sunrise’ can readily prove to be a false dawn – but Eötvös’s subtle control over a piece which can all too easily sprawl was hardly to be doubted.
Overall, a fine demonstration of the LSO’s skill in overtly expressive late-Romantic repertoire and a notable return for Eötvös, whose forthcoming Bartók and Szymanowski concert should be no less absorbing. Hopefully it will not be indisposition that sees his future collaboration with an orchestra with whom he enjoys an evident rapport.