BBCSO Saraste

Maskarade – Overture
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36

Leonidas Kavakos (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 28 October, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The BBC Symphony Orchestra ended a month’s work with Principal Guest Conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste with only its second Barbican concert of its season. The intervening weeks from his urgent performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony at the end of September have been filled by rehearsals and a five-concert tour to South America, taking in three concerts in Brazil and two at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aries. Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos also accompanied the orchestra on the tour, not only playing the Sibelius, as here, but also Berg’s Concerto, while the orchestra also had in its repertoire, in addition to Tchaikovsky 4, Bruckner 9 and Dvořák 7.

One advantage not usually accorded to London orchestras was that all three performances were well played in; string tone was unanimous and, aside from a few tired slips from the horns in the opening fanfare of the Tchaikovsky, the wind and brass playing was also secure without losing individual timbre.

Nielsen’s Overture to his comic opera Maskarade (belatedly due at Covent Garden next season) was a suitable opener, full of swagger and instrumental virtuosity. Even more impressive was Sibelius’s Concerto, Kavakos’s way with it matching the orchestra’s organic approach, so that the effect was cumulative. Always a fastidious player, I was intrigued that Kavakos at the start of the finale (Tovey’s description of it as a waltz for polar bears is hard to dismiss from one’s mind) adopted a quasi-Mustonen mannerism by raising his arm in an arc, waggling his bow, before plunging down onto the string. Not that it had a detrimental effect on his playing, and the orchestral strings matched his commitment and dug-in so that you could physically feel as well as hear the sound.

While some artists dole out an encore under the mistaken impression that it is their right to do so, Kavakos’s decision seemed to be a genuine response to audience demand. We were given an intense and perfectly controlled gem – Ysaÿe’s sunrise (L’aurore) which is the first movement of his Fifth Solo Sonata (Op.27/5). The heavy opening chords were alleviated by eerie harmonics in a display that beats hands-down the flashier encores often chosen by other popular violinists (who had better remain nameless as they fall far short by comparison).

Jukka-Pekka Saraste has a winning way with Tchaikovsky as he has proved with a very satisfying reading of Symphony No.5 with the LPO a few seasons back. He is direct and not afraid to opt for drama rather than only beauty of tone. There was an authentic tang to this performance with individual timbres, especially for the wind and horns, and piercing trumpets in the fanfares. A curiously stilted oboe opening to the second movement settled down, like the first movement had, while the three individual and competing ensembles in the third movement (pizzicato strings, winds, and brass) racked up the tension admirably. The finale was simply a blast.

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