Andrzej Panufnik wrote his Violin Concerto for Yehudi Menuhin, who gave the first performance at the 1972 City of London Festival, conducted by the composer. Focussing on Menuhin's “unique spiritual and poetic qualities”, it's a leisurely, lyrical essay pre-occupied with cellular thematic shapes in various stages of (intensive) metamorphosis. Lingering phrases, beautiful sounds, cadences that seem to be endings only to turn into continuations, shape its world. If occasionally it seems a shade indulgent, a meditation between soloist and composer where the listener hesitates to intrude, the closing Vivace – conveying, the composer said, “human feelings of joyousness, vitality and even some sense of humour” – is an extrovert, cleverly conceived race for home, the final pages fluid and convincing in their physicality and closure. Panufnik maintained that virtuoso pyrotechnics were not his aim. Nonetheless, the demands made on the soloist, harmonics and multiple-stopping not least, are considerable and exposing. And there are more than a few areas where the accompanying string band is faced with up-ending moments of ensemble, interplay and intonational challenge.
Sergej Krylov joins a growing number of new-generation artists taking up this work. Whether he's yet made the music his own (contrasting, for example, Sebastian Bohren, who most definitely has) is unclear. This performance may have had presence and a certain 'bite' yet I was left with a feeling that it had all been too carefully calculated, the music's flight and life restricted rather than released. Brilliant though the harmonics were they rarely ‘happened’ of the moment, you could feel, sometimes hear, their placement at the expense of momentum. Likewise the quasi cadenza at the start needed more authority and control. Thomas Søndergård, keenly aware structurally, and the London Philharmonic strings provided positive support – though some differentiation in emphasis and character between the opening Rubato and Adagio (effectively two slow movements in succession) would not have gone amiss. Krylov's encore – 'Obsession' from Ysaÿe's Second Violin Sonata, mixing Bach and ‘Dies irae’ – showed pleasing flair and spontaneity.
Søndergård (Principal Conductor of BBCNOW), making his LPO debut, is an elegant, grounded musician with a virtual absence of stage histrionics or playing to the gallery. He places a premium on clarity and balance. His grasp of form, shape and direction is notable. And, decisive and economical in technique, he has a way of generating tension – his left hand coaxing, say, a single line to swell, flower and fade – that is emotionally and theatrically compelling. Sibelius's King Christian II Suite, with violas to the right, glowed in little delights of sustained phrasing, togetherness, articulation and rhythmic attack. The attention to detail – the opening woodwinds of the ‘Nocturne’, the simple violin/cello exchanges of the ‘Elegy’, the clarinets and bassoons, the shimmering muted tremolos, of the ‘Musette’ – set the bar high.
I've heard Shostakovich Fifths in the Royal Festival Hall that have been mightier, louder and screamed more – from the composer's son, Maxim, and Bernstein for two. But Søndergård's reading, minor playing blemishes aside, offered much to impress. From icy landscapes, lone individuals, intrusive militaristic set-pieces, sarcasms, hollow gestures, plaintive voices, whispers, mock (and mocked) heroics ... to the incessant repetition of notes, rhythms and hammering decibels at the end reminding us that while the composer may outwardly have had to toe the Stalin line (the "forced rejoicing" and “barbarian painter” allusions of the Finale) he was inwardly appalled (“we understood”, Kurt Sanderling used to say). Søndergård's long-breathed spans of melody, the harmonic gravitas, the weighting of colours, the climax-building, his refusal to go for cheap effects or easy electricity, had to be admired. The first and third movements, especially the slow third, were outstanding.