The Italian Girl in Algiers – Overture
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64 [revised version]
Variazioni a più instrumenti obbligati
Symphony No.5 in B flat, D485
Julia Fischer (violin)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 27 May, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Two helpings of Rossini are always welcome and for good measure we also got two Fischers, this concert marking the first appearance of Julia Fischer with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe as well as the return of Iván Fischer.
The overture to “The Italian Girl in Algiers” is one of Rossini’s wittiest. Yet despite the polished elegance of the COE’s response and a magnificently characterised oboe solo from Ramon Ortega, this was a charmless po-faced account – without the laughs – with hardly much of a spring in the heel. Partly this was because dynamic levels were consistently too high, percussion frequently drowning out strings, but Fischer also brought little sense of anticipation or élan to those wonderful Rossini crescendos.
Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto was a very different matter thanks in no small measure to Julia Fischer. This was a gem of a performance. Balances between soloist and orchestra were perfect, chamber music writ large. Once past a slightly uneven opening paragraph, the violinist had so much to say about the piece, allowing herself plenty of elbow room and taking particular care over the music’s joins, time frequently suspended. It was good too to be reminded just what an unusual structure the work has, with the cadenza midway in the opening movement and with the performers producing a tremendous adrenaline charge at the movement’s close. The Andante might have repaid a slightly more flowing tempo but the main theme’s reprise was quiet enough for woodwind detail to register in a way one seldom hears, and the finale had a delicious lift and sparkle, ensemble spot-on.
As a spellbinding encore, Fischer gave us the first movement of Ysaÿe’s Second Sonata, a homage to her beloved Bach.
Both works on the second half were written when their respective composers were at the beginning of their careers. Rossini was 17 and Schubert probably 21. The Rossini is an engaging piece of trivia with display passages for the leaders of the various string sections followed by a little duet for the first flute and cello and finally one for the first clarinet; this undemanding music was despatched with relish and panache.
Would that one could summon similar enthusiasm for the account of Schubert’s delightful Fifth Symphony. Given the outstanding quality of the COE’s string and wind soloists, this should have been a walkover. However Iván Fischer consistently adopted speeds which did the music few favours – too fast for clear articulation in the first and last movements (the latter’s contrasting triplet passages failing to register), and the slow one dragged out interminably, which was hardly con moto. Nor was there much in the way of dynamics – the work’s delicious opening – marked piano – was hustled along at a throbbing all-purpose mezzo-forte and, later, there was no distinction between forte and fortissimo. Especially charm-less was the hyperactive unstylish account of the Minuet which produced sounds of a forcefulness which would have been completely out of place in any Schubert symphony.
The advertised programme ran to less than 70 minutes of music. There were two encores, though, the first being the fourteenth of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances.