Wednesday, November 10, 2010 Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
Mendelssohn and Queen Victoria, Elgar and the Edwardians, this neat pairing of their works included Nikolaj Znaider continuing his world tour of Elgar’s Violin Concerto in its centenary year, an odyssey that was begun as recording sessions in Dresden during last year with Sir Colin Davis, the conductor who then re-united with Znaider in Boston early this year, and now in London (to the exact date of the first performance in 1910), and with New York engagements in early-December scheduled.
Znaider plays an on-loan violin made by Guarneri del Gesù in 1741 that was previously owned by Fritz Kreisler and believed to be the very instrument on which Kreisler gave the first performance of Elgar’s concerto, in London’s Queen’s Hall with the composer conducting. On this LSO occasion, passion and ambiguity (essential Elgarian qualities) were established in the lengthy orchestral introduction, pauses for thought too. Znaider (requiring the score, an aide memoire) didn’t impose himself on the piece, the most virtuoso passages being classically ‘straight’, yet there was no lack of nobilmente or intimacies, the latter bordering on the confidential. The first movement, given on the broadest of scales, covered much emotional ground, enough for the second to seem unsettled, overwrought even, and the finale to be discursive and, from Znaider, brusque at times. Yet when the ‘accompanied cadenza’ arrived it seemed an inevitable corollary to everything that had gone before – a distant world created – and the coming away from it was a glorious culmination. Just occasionally it seemed that Znaider might have played this work a little too much of late, yet he could not have had more faithful accompanists than Colin Davis and the LSO, the hug between violinist and conductor, and then between soloist and Leader (a rare sighting of Gordan Nikolitch these days) saying it all.
Earlier Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ Symphony had received a satisfyingly integrated performance – from the expectant flow of the slow introduction to the joie de vivre of the ultimate coda, Colin Davis and the LSO addressed the symphony as a four-movements-in-one whole, the attaccas spot on, tempo-relationships seamless (the transition from opening Andante to main Allegro masterly in its turn, two sides of the same coin, the eschewing of the exposition repeat totally convincing within the overall design). Davis’s tempos were consistently moderate paying many dividends of point and expression, not least in the scherzo that emerged as playful rather than pressured. In short, this was ‘old pals’ making music artlessly.
And so to Emily Howard and the Elizabethan age and a further (typically unadvertised) LSO Discovery/UBS piece. Howard (born 1979) may describe the 7-minute Solar as a “musical image of our sun”, but in what appeared to be the first performance (to programme-book needed much searching to verify this!) the initial and potent high and low pitches established a polarity that were soon filled with baleful outbursts and the marking of time, an anguished lament that began from one of the least-audible of pianissimos that any violin section has ever attempted, the ensuing slow-burn crescendo seemed tragic in its implications, a dense, barbed wall of sound, a mix of post-Shostakovich Russians and Birtwistle leading to a brutal cut-off leaving the sound of a bell-stroke hanging the air. I seem to have called Solar in a totally different way to the composer’s intentions (I didn’t read her note until after the performance), but music is for the imagination and Solar seems to despair for mankind while also being inspiring as music.