BBCSO/Slatkin – 2 April

Concerto for Orchestra [UK Premiere]
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26
Symphony No.1 in B flat minor

Leila Josefowicz (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 2 April, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

At this concert we were given the opportunity to compare three works which inhabit entirely different worlds: the vibrant Concerto for Orchestra by American composer Jennifer Higdon; that old favourite, Max Bruch’s G minor violin concerto; and the volcanic First Symphony of William Walton.

Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra consists of five sections: the first (an astonishingly fast-flowing affair with a beautiful contrasting theme from the brass being the only respite) and last (with a climax of febrile intensity) explore the entire orchestral palette. The second section uses only the strings, and is shot through with folk idioms and memorable use of pizzicato; indeed, the final chord is plucked, drawing an aural line to prepare for the third movement, which explores relationships between different sets of soloists. The colours Higdon manages to generate here are marvellous. The fourth movement relies almost entirely on the percussion, and is a real tour de force, beginning gently but soon building into a frenzied ’drum solo’ which leads directly into the work’s final section.

It’s difficult to avoid the obvious comparison with Bartók’s foray into this territory, but the only real relationship is the generic title; besides, Higdon’s work has more in common with Bach’s Brandenburg concertos and the music of Ned Rorem (one of her teachers), Piston, Hindemith and Copland. Maybe some will see this (entirely tonal) work as populist and reactionary, but that would be missing the point: Concerto for Orchestra is an enjoyable, finely-crafted work, which has caught the imagination of Higdon’s fellow Americans and, judging from tonight’s enthusiastic response, looks set to catch ours. The BBC Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin got right behind the piece with a committed reading that never lost sight of the ’fun’ element.

After the sonic deluge of the Higdon, the Bruch came as a refreshing change of gear, and indeed the piece benefited from the juxtaposition, sounding rather Mendelssohnian and chamber-like. This was a lovely performance from soloist and orchestra, Josefowicz and Slatkin placing their sounds in an almost painterly way. And yet there was no shortage of passion – especially in the final movement where I’m sure I heard (and saw) Josefowicz’s foot stamping in time to the music. For an encore she played the Scherzo from Recitative and Scherzo by Fritz Kreisler

The Walton, however, was the emotional highpoint of the evening, with Slatkin and the BBCSO producing an electrifying performance. Slatkin, with the eloquence of a dancer and sculptor combined, really got to the heart of the matter, and the orchestra followed with explosive effectiveness. There was murmuring from the audience following the first movement, with its jazzy hues and grotesque transformations of the demotic. The tempo for the scherzo, Presto, con malizia, was well judged, the playful elements taken by the scruff of the neck, the tutti interjections as sharp as a razor, and with an amazing rhythmic energy. The Andante, con malinconia projected a feeling of almost bittersweet anguish, with the lovely flute solo drifting loose of the insistent timpani and the lush harmonies like a disembodied soul. And the finale, with its fugal elements and searing brass writing, threw the elements of the first movement back in our faces, the final chords feeling like slaps. This was music-making of the highest order.

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