From the House of the Dead Overture
Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.77
Music-Pictures (Group III), Op.33
Leila Josefowicz (violin)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 10 January, 2006
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sakari Oramo’s advocacy of John Foulds has been unstinting in recent years. Earlier this season, he and the City of Birmingham Symphony performed Dynamic Triptych (with Peter Donohoe) and this concert saw the first public performance since 1913 of Music-Pictures (Group III). Essentially a transitional work between the late-Romantic opulence of such works as Mirage and such exploratory scores as Three Mantras and Lyra Celtica, its four movements are comparable – in sophistication at least – to contemporary orchestral suites by Bartók and Reger.
Each movement is inspired by, though by no means a musical rendering of, a specific painting. Thus William Blake’s sternly moralistic “The Ancient of Days” lies behind the stark processional of the initial ‘Lento’ – its scoring for wind and percussion enhancing the pervasive austerity – while Alfred Brunet’s “Columbine” inspired a radical juxtaposition of whole-tones, semi-tones and quarter-tones that would sound even more remarkable were not this innovation tempered by the deftness and wit of Foulds’s music. A sketch by John Martin was the catalyst for ‘Old Greek Legend’ – an Adagio that draws on the Phrygian mode in music of hieratic grandeur and, in the closing pages, exquisite poignancy – before Paul-Emile Boutigny’s “The Tocsin” serves as inspiration for a finale full of martial clamour, though notwithout a distinct plaintive quality to suggest that the human perspective was Foulds’s concern all along.
Music-Pictures (Group III) is not the radical masterpiece found elsewhere in Foulds’s output, but it is an orchestral showpiece of the highest order, touching emotional depths not always evinced by higher profile works of its era. It received here a finely executed account, poetic and propulsive by turns, and willbe worth getting to know when its appears on the CBSO’s second Foulds disc – due out this autumn.
Earlier, Oramo had partnered Leila Josefowicz in an absorbing performance of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto. This is the most symphonic of the composer’s six contributions to the genre, and was a quality much in evidence here. Josefowicz resisted any temptation to over-indulge the opening ‘Nocturne’ – her cool, clear tone and Oramo’s scrupulous orchestral balance making the most of its rapt introspection – or milk the pyrotechnics of the ensuing ‘Scherzo’, whose vividly-inflected Jewish contours were incisively dispatched. Maybe the ‘Passacaglia’ (if not Shostakovich’s most profound usage of the form, then surely his most communicative) could have had a degree more fervency, but Josefowicz’s pacing of this cumulative sequence was itself impressive, as was the surge of energy to launch the taxing cadenza into the ‘Burlesque’ finale. Taken overall, this was an account entirely free of the self-emoting that so often besets performances of what is by now a mainstay of the repertoire.
Framing the concert was Janáček. In its evocation of confinement and defiance, the overture to his final opera “From the House of the Dead” is a curtain-raiser like no other, and Oramo rightly stressed the pathos behind this music’s invigorating starkness. His approach to the rhapsody Taras Bulba was similarly flexible and humane – utilising a wide range of timbral nuance in the first two movements, depicting the very different deaths of Taras’s sons Andriy and Ostap, and with intensifying grandeur as the hero’s prophecy and death draw on apace. Glowing rather than incandescent, the closing pages yet underlined how Janáček’s simple tonal contrasts can furnish a peroration of zealous affirmation.