BBCSO/Eötvös Hilary Hahn

Siegfried Idyll
Violin Concerto, Op.36
Concerto for Orchestra

Hilary Hahn (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Peter Eötvös

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 29 March, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony for three seasons eighteen years ago, Peter Eötvös has made regular and welcome appearances with the orchestra ever since. Even before his activity as a composer enjoyed its current eminence, Eötvös was seen primarily as a specialist in twentieth-century repertoire – making his forays into earlier music all the more interesting.

You would be hard put to encounter a more unaffected reading of Siegfried Idyll than this: one that conveyed a relaxed intimacy without minimising the music’s expressive intensity, not least the uninhibited surge that caps the purposeful central section (Wagner’s inferring of a development without appearing to have written it being just one instance of his formal slight of hand), and the blissful calm of the coda. Other readings have evinced more affection, not to mention sentimentality, but there was no reason to dissent from Eötvös’s view of the piece as an abstract tone poem unique in its composer’s output.

The ruminative mid-Romanticism of Wagner’s ode to domestic bliss might seem light years away from the uncompromising Modernism of Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto – a work which, seventy years after completion, retains a fearsome reputation that even some memorable recent performances (Viktoria Mullova in the Royal Festival Hall in 1995, Ernst Kovacic at the Proms in 2001) have only partially succeeded in quelling.

The exhilaration of Hilary Hahn’s account was not that of an endurance test, but one that played the music for what it is and always should have been. At 27 minutes, there can have been few swifter readings. Yet there was no sense of rush in the way Schoenberg’s exacting technical demands were not just surmounted but interpreted with a sure appreciation of their role within Schoenberg’s formal and expressive scheme. Hence the cumulative weight that was lightly but unerringly applied to the densely-wrought sonata form of the first movement. A wistful, rather Brahmsian, intermezzo followed, and the combative vigour of the final rondo, channelled into a surpassingly well-played cadenza, was capped by a thrilling rapprochement between soloist and orchestra at the close.

Assured as was Hahn throughout, the performance would not have made the impression it did without Eötvös’s ever-attentive marshalling of the orchestra in playing that – like the orchestrationitself – was both deft and refined. The fastidious astringency of Schoenberg’s writing can seldom, if ever, have been so well conveyed. If there was a fault, it was the relative one of the music seeming to play itself almost too easily: relative, because the supposed difficulties of this piece are more the result of perceptions arising from a lack of satisfying performances than from its inherent qualities. How heartening, then, that so gifted a virtuoso has taken the work to her heart (literally, she played from memory) – her forthcoming recording (hopefully with the same orchestra and conductor) being one to anticipate in all eagerness.

After this, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra might run the risk of being a showpiece pure, if not so simple. Eötvös, of course, has other ideas about the summatory orchestral piece of his Hungarian predecessor – and, from the brooding opening bars, this was clearly going to be a probing traversal of the work’s journey from doubt to triumph. If the contrasts of motion in that opening movement did not quite find mutual accord (as, perhaps, they fail to do in the actual music), the ‘Giuoco delle coppie’ was pertly characterised and the pathos of the ‘Elegia’ rendered with no false emoting. Eötvös played down the Shostakovich allusion in the ‘Intermezzo interrotto’, though not the tartness of the brass response to it, and maintained an easy incisiveness throughout the ‘Finale’ – delivered with the meaningful virtuosity that this orchestra can summon up when suitably inspired.

A conviction evident, indeed, across this concert as a whole. Yet, while one looks forward to future appearances from Eötvös as conductor, even more gratifying would be for one of his operas to reach London. Works with the intrinsic quality of “Three Sisters”, “Le Balcon” and “Angels in America” are not so common that they can afford to be overlooked.

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