Violin Concerto in G minor, Op.26
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.60 (Leningrad)
Sayaka Shoji (violin)
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 1 December, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
On the second concert of their seven-concert, five-country tour Semyon Bychkov and his WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne arrived at the Royal Festival Hall for a rather perplexing coupling of Bruch’s popular Violin Concerto – played by 21-year-old Sayaka Shoji, of whom Bychkov has been an instrumental supporter (pun intended) – and Shostakovich’s shattering Leningrad Symphony.
Inexplicably standing alone from the South Bank’s “Classic International”, Bychkov and his forces immediately showed up the lack of foresight for non-inclusion by producing some great playing in both concerto and symphony. What impressed was their collective innate musicality. There is always an argument with Shostakovich that his music cannot easily be removed from either the politics of his time or his private programmes; but in this performance of the Leningrad Bychkov eschewed such considerations and played the notes purely as music. That’s not to say it stinted on excitement, anguish or horror, but these never obfuscated the musical argument.
In that sense this was a deeply satisfying account, with any number of fine solos from the Cologne players. Bychkov favours his violas to his right with the cellos in front of him, allowing him a slightly different perspective on the low-string chorales and passages with which the Shostakovich proliferates (not for nothing did the viola section get its own bow at the end). The epic first movement was keenly crafted, the insistent side-drum tattoo building to a ferocious, but controlled climax, so that the first movement did not unbalance the other three. Bychkov’s final crescendo on the last note crowned a committed performance. I have heard more harrowing and perhaps cathartic performances, but few so clear about the musical architecture.
As an upbeat we had the Bruch. It is not a work I really feel I ever need to hear again, although I do enjoy the theme in the slow movement that Richard Strauss appropriated for ascending to the top of his mountain in Eine Alpensinfonie, which typifies the overtly romantic hue of the work. Sayaka Shoji, new to me, belied her diminutive stature (as she came on I momentarily thought that we were hearing a transcription of the work for viola as the instrument looked so large in her hands) with a firm and confident tone.
My general apathy towards the Bruch not completely overcome, I gauged that Shoji is definitely a talent to watch. I think she will find more character in the Bruch, but I would certainly not hesitate to hear again in other repertoire. Bychkov and his players matched her committed playing with care and honesty.
The Cologne Symphony’s tour started in Naples and from London goes on to Stuttgart, Munich, Budapest, Vienna and Graz with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, Haydn’s Symphony No.44, Mahler’s Third and Shostakovich’s Tenth also in the repertoire. Between 30 January and 7 February Sayaka Shoji rejoins Bychkov and his orchestra for the Canary Islands Festival, playing the Bruch in both Las Palmas and Tenerife.