Violin Concerto [Feeney Trust Commission: World premiere]
Falstaff – Symphonic Study, Op.68
Leila Josefowicz (violin)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Dominic Nudd
Reviewed: 30 September, 2009
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham
As a composer Colin Matthews has generally followed a more modernist path, eschewing nineteenth and early-twentieth-century forms, writing concertos only for cello (twice) and horn, so the idea of a violin concerto from him is unexpected and in fact it has nothing to do with any conventional display piece.
A compact work lasting just over twenty minutes in two movements of roughly equal length, Colin Matthews’s Violin Concerto uses a modest-sized orchestra including a full complement of woodwinds, seven brass (flugelhorns rather than trumpets) but only 36 strings, the 12 violins as one group, with a great array of percussion. In the pre-concert talk Matthews drew attention to the Lujon, a resonating box with tuned metal plates; and marimba, xylophone, harp and piano form “a sort of continuo group”. Matthews also highlighted a similarity to the world of Szymanowski and felt that the concerto marks the end of his Debussy phase, the eight years spent orchestrating the 24 Préludes.
Violin Concerto opens in a dream-like world, the solo violin holding long high notes over undulating woodwind lines, decorated with flecks of percussion. The orchestral violins remain silent while the soloist unfolds a lyrical song over a persistent rhythmic underlay, not entering until the music moves forward, the Szymanowski-like mood most evident in the ecstatic, richly scored slow sections. The alternating fast ones open into whirling activity, with the soloist soaring dramatically above the orchestra while timpani and percussion, notably xylophone, supply the rhythmic pulse. The movement ends with the melodic line flying through the air and vanishing.
The second movement reveals a different world, darker, less mysterious, and marked by a slow pulse of tuned percussion and gongs. The bold gestures and severe chords are more recognisably Colin Matthews’s style. The music gradually accelerates, the continuo percussion joined by beaten car springs and steel pipes, and becomes more nervy and agitated, the soloist riding successive waves of orchestra sound, with agile muscular lyricism; in the final gesture the music sweeps upwards and is suddenly silent. This is a gorgeous new concerto, Leila Josefowicz delivering an impassioned performance, closely supported by deeply engaged playing from the CBSO under Oliver Knussen.
The concert began with a clean, beautifully articulated performance of Britten’s Canadian Carnival, scrupulously prepared and executed. After the interval Oliver Knussen directed a blistering, urgent and fiercely committed account of Elgar’s Falstaff, emphasising the symphonic cohesion and avoiding any relaxed dwelling on the score’s fantastic imagery. Although there was no lack of eloquence, particularly in expressive solos from cellist Ulrich Heinen and first bassoon, Alessandro Caprotti, beauty of incident was not allowed to distract from the overall thrust. Even the two Interludes, in which Falstaff nostalgically dreams of his childhood, were completely integrated into Knussen’s compelling view, and the march of Falstaff’s motley army emerged as disciplined charge. Only at the end did Knussen finally relax, the aging Knight’s dismissal by the new King was brusque and his end bleak and empty.