BBCSO/Sinaisky Sarah Chang

Noch einen Schritt [London premiere]
Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.77 [Op.99]
Symphony No.2 in C minor, Op.29

Sarah Chang (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Vassily Sinaisky

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 May, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This BBC Symphony Orchestra concert offered a well-balanced programme, typical of the imagination which Vassily Sinaisky has shown throughout his association with the BBC Philharmonic and on his rare London visits.

Admittedly the opening work reinforced feelings that, in his orchestral works at least, Giya Kancheli had peaked well before his music came to prominence in the West during the mid-1980s. Not that Noch einen Schritt (Another Step, 1992) is an intrinsically bad piece: only that its abrupt alternation of dynamic extremes, leavened with fragmentary folk-like allusions heard on pre-recorded piano and amplified viola, evinces little cumulative logic over its 12 minutes; while the likely reference to the ‘head’ motif of Shostakovich’s Twelfth Symphony – premiered almost exactly 30 years before – feels devoid of any more constructive context. The BBCSO responded with the required heft, but those who know Kancheli’s output of the 1970s and early 1980s will surely have felt short-changed.

Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto (1948) enjoyed a predictable rash of performances last year, but a masterpiece as this can survive such overkill and Sarah Chang is among its noted exponents at present. Her rich, expressive tone (vibrato occasionally over-applied) was well suited to the spectral inwardness of the ‘Nocturne’ – for all that she was momentarily submerged at its climax (modest the orchestral complement may be, yet it is capable of remarkable amplitude). The ‘Scherzo’ took time to recover from a poorly co-ordinated opening, and while Chang brought out the ‘dance of death’ element well enough, she made heavy weather of passagework in the movement’s later stages.

Powerfully but not too portentously launched, the ‘Passacaglia’ had the requisite emotional impact on its way to a nobly-wrought apex – Chang’s expressive eloquence at its most affecting. In the lengthy cadenza, however, she peaked too soon; leaving insufficient room to build tension during its second half, so that the arrival of the ‘Burlesque’ felt delayed rather than heightened in consequence. Despite often scintillating playing, Chang largely failed to find the balance between it being a virtuoso finale and as a more considered rounding-off to a concerto of symphonic weight and depth. Powering to the close (and swapping her depleted bow with leader Clio Gould in the process), the overriding impression had more to do with technique than interpretation.

There can be few conductors since Yevgeny Svetlanov to have advanced the cause of the ‘Russian Symphony’ with greater relish than Sinaisky, and the second half featured a rare public outing (the first in London since 1992) for Scriabin’s Second Symphony (1901). Although in five movements, the first and fourth are essentially introductions to their successors, with a stand-alone slow movement at the centre (the format of the work is improbably shared with Charles Ives’s Second Symphony, completed at the same time). Sinaisky brought out the sombre rumination of the initial Andante, whose main theme (audibly related to the ‘Sword motif’ from Wagner’s ‘Ring’) underlies the subsequent thematic material, then galvanised the Allegro so its unwieldy sonata-form yielded real vitality and purpose.

The Andante, its somnolent pleasures shot-through with an anxiety that surfaces in the brooding central climax, was powerfully shaped: if this is the template for the corresponding movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, then the latter is superior only on account of its melodic fluency. Sinaisky invested the ensuing Tempestoso with a coursing energy that amply carried over into a Maestoso finale which, though its composer may later have regretted the movement’s tendency to overkill, had an irresistible momentum such as avoided any descent into bombast. The BBCSO (which gave memorable Scriabin performances with John Pritchard two decades ago) responded with the conviction necessary in a work that needs to be made to sound more than the sum of its parts: the outcome was a late-Romantic epic that could even now establish itself as a ‘crowd-pleaser’.

Sinaisky could do worse than, on his next visit, to programme Scriabin’s First Symphony – unheard professionally in London for some 36 years and a not dissimilar testament to overreaching ambition.

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