Ruslan and Ludmilla – Overture
Violin Concerto [world premiere]
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47
Lorraine McAslan (violin)
Ealing Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Andrew Morris
Reviewed: 23 June, 2012
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London
A real coup! The Ealing Symphony Orchestra – an amateur ensemble often adventurous in its programming – was able to present the first performance of William Alwyn’s Violin Concerto, a work that has languished in near-obscurity since its completion in 1939. Oddly, it’s been recorded twice but has never reached a concert … good to report that it is a very appealing work that doesn’t outstay its forty-minute duration.
Lorraine McAslan’s Naxos version of it was released last year (almost two decades after Lydia Mordkovitch’s premiere recording for Chandos), one in her series that continues to shine a light in neglected corners of the British violin repertoire. At St John’s McAslan was a warm and persuasive presence, lending Alwyn’s concerto added weight with her rich, viola-like tone and formidable technique. True, she did suffer from some untidiness in the last movement, but it mattered little. It was just the kind of performance an unfamiliar work needs to win new friends. And the music itself delights in that particularly British tone of optimism. The commanding chords announced by the orchestra at the outset put in motion a fluent flow of violin writing that make the first movement a highlight. Perhaps the second and third movements lack a certain melodic distinction, but Alwyn’s way with harmony and orchestral texture promise much. The Ealing SO supported McAslan with great assurance, always present in the right places and admirably restrained when balancing with the soloist. If the concerto isn’t consistently inspired, moments such as the hushed sunset-glow of the first movement’s coda are proof enough that this work hasn’t deserved its years of neglect.
The ESO opened with a vibrant performance of Glinka that kept the momentum going, even if the very tricky scales and rapid runs got the better of some players. Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony also held some awkward moments, but the performance had many strengths. John Gibbons managed a long and beautifully sustained crescendo in the Largo (third movement), which was also graced by some exquisite solos from flute and clarinet. The orchestra was also adept at pianissimo playing, particularly during the tense retreat of the first movement’s coda. Gibbons spoke about the choice every conductor makes about how to end this piece, but left it to the audience to decide which route he had taken. In the event, his tempo stood somewhere between the opposing camps of swift celebration and slow oppression: a moment of ambiguity welcome to those who don’t like to be told how to listen to this troubling masterpiece.