BBCSO/Berglund – 26 November

Symphony No.2 in D minor, Op.40
Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.63
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105

Nikolaj Znaider (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Paavo Berglund

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 26 November, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Spanning the BBCSO’s current season is a cycle of Prokofiev symphonies divided between concerts at the Barbican and studio performances at Maida Vale. Paavo Berglund conducted the Second Symphony (1925) – the most audacious statement of the composer’s Paris years and a work which, in the UK at least, tends to be revived only in retrospectives of this nature.

With its two, sharply-contrasted movements and consciously applied harmonic dissonance, the symphonism of the Second is easy to criticise and easier to misunderstand. The formal comparison with Beethoven’s Op.111 piano sonata should not be taken further than appearances; indeed, the way in whichProkofiev’s movements seem to cancel themselves out is one of the facets that no doubt perplexed the Parisian audience at its premiere (a reaction which still prevails, to judge by the tepid audience response evening).

Yet the opening ’Allegro’, for all its textural overkill, is a sonata movement of surprisingly regular cut, while the Theme and Variations which follow have one of Prokofiev’s most soulful melodies to keep their formal and expressive follow-through in focus.

Berglund steered a sure and convincing course through the first movement’s contrapuntal excesses, drawing out detail that one thought only to exist ’in theory’. Save for a jarring tempo connection from the fugal development back to the reprise, there was little to fault in his presentation of music whose intrinsic interest comfortably outweighs its shock factor. The ensuing variations were pointedly characterised – the perpetual motion of the second and the piquant hues of the fourth variations the obvious highlights – though not as to undermine the inclusivity of the design.

Towards the end of his life, Prokofiev intended a three-movement revision of the piece, though the insertion of an abbreviated first movement into the variation sequence (the thematic connections are certainly there) – perhaps in place of the scherzo-like fifth variation – might have been a better option. For behind the discontinuity of the Second Symphony, as stands, is a single-movement work waiting to happen – and, had Prokofiev been inStockholm for the premiere of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony in 1924, he may well have realised as such.

Not that he could have hoped to approach the subtlety and hard-won effortlessness of the older composer’s final symphony. At 22 minutes, Berglund’s was a reading expansive in overall pacing rather than in passing tempo relationships. The difference with Sakari Oramo’s recent fine CBSO performance was marked: instead of tightly-drawn cumulative contrasts, Berglund instilled a sense of slow, centrifugal motion operating behind the varied foreground activity – its presence made manifest by the three appearances of the trombones as a ’virtual backbone’ to the work. Incidentally, how appropriate to revive Robert Simpson’s far-sighted programme note in the context of this performance – reinforcing the epithet ’inevitable’ about Sibelius Seven in full measure.

Between these contrasted but contemporaneous symphonies, Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto – almost the last piece from his years in the West and, in its lucidity and formal proportion, at the opposite end of the spectrum from his Second Symphony. Like other of the composer’s works from the first half of the 1930s, however, there’s a feeling that melodic directness is being not so much rediscovered as manufactured – resulting in expression less ironic than artificial. Nikolaj Znaider has won golden opinions for his recent recording of the work, and played with a virtuosity that was keen if not overly spontaneous. Indeed, his tendency to laminate expression onto the contours of the music was in marked contrast with Berglund’s unaffected, chamber-like handling of the orchestra – a further paradox in a work whoseair of contrivance makes it a strangely unsatisfying experience.

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