Berlin Symphony Orchestra at Cadogan Hall – 1

Symphony No.87 in A
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

Sayako Kusaka (violin)

Berlin Symphony Orchestra
Lothar Zagrosek

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 March, 2009
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

For long known largely through its recordings (notably those by Kurt Sanderling during his 17-year tenure as Chief Conductor), the Berlin Symphony Orchestra has gained a higher profile since taking residence at the Konzerthaus over a decade ago and now, with Lothar Zagrosek at the helm, is in the midst of a European tour that includes three concerts at Cadogan Hall.

Zagrosek is well remembered in London for his imaginative and wide-ranging concerts when Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. That the present concerts focus entirely on mainstream Classical repertoire might seem a little disappointing, yet the opportunity to mark the bicentennial anniversaries of Haydn and Mendelssohn is hardly to be decried. The former was represented by the most genial of the six symphonies written for Paris during the mid-1780s – notable for the almost concertante role allotted woodwinds in its slow movement, to which the BSO players did full justice. For his part Zagrosek maintained a relaxed but attentive grip on both the first movement, pointing the droll second subject delightfully, and the Minuet, before dispatching the finale with real vitality – though, shorn of any repeats, this did seem short measure in the context of the work as a whole.

The unavailability of Ernst Kovacic saw the orchestra’s leader, Sayako Kusaka, assume solo duties for Mendelssohn’s E minor Violin Concerto. Without over-projecting her contribution, she is certainly not one of those section-leaders who appears reluctant in the spotlight and enjoyed an ideal rapport with her colleagues throughout what, in any case, is the most chamber-like of nineteenth-century violin concertos. The first movement cadenza was unusually well-integrated as the thematic link between development and reprise, while transitions between movements had the right balance between poise and spontaneity. Moreover, the unforced eloquence of Kusaka’s response ensured that even such a familiar work as this yielded its fair measure of unexpected pleasures and delights.

Zagrosek’s account of the Eroica followed just a week after that by Osmo Vänskä at the Minnesota Orchestra in the Barbican Hall. Less inherently methodical, Zagrosek was rarely less than convincing. Clarity of ensemble in the first movement ensured its contrapuntal ingenuity was no less evident than its harmonic density or tonal range, and if the fugal hub of the ‘Marcia funèbre’ felt overly subdued, neither the plangent response earlier in the movement nor the pathos of its close were to be found wanting. Robust and engaging, the scherzo was unexceptionally fine, but the finale was the undoubted highlight – Zagrosek traversing its variations with evident sureness of purpose and not slowing down unduly at the poco andante. The triumphal but never triumphalist restatement of the ‘Prometheus’ theme set the seal on a notable performance that bodes well for the remaining concerts of this welcome mini-series.

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