Genius of the Violin

Samson et Dalila – Bacchanale
The American Seasons
Poison Sweet Madeira – Holy Devil; Lazarus; Pin Pricks & Gravy Stains
Rodeo – Hoe Down
Overture to the Life of a Real Boy [LSO/UBS Sound Adventures commission: World premiere]
Violin Concerto No.1, Op.35
Memory of Bihari
Heyre Katy
Schindler’s List – Main Title [arr.]
Czárdás [arr.]

Mark O’Connor (violin)

Sophie Solomon (violin) [with Martha Wainwright (vocals), Mark Sheridan (guitar), Ian Watson (accordion) & Thomas Dyani (percussion)]

Nikolaj Znaider (violin)

Roby Lakatos (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
François-Xavier Roth

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 23 February, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Although billed as “Genius of the Violin”, the festival itself is not actually taking place this year. This programme ran to nearly three hours and was a wonderful demonstration of the difference between very superior kitsch in the form of Roby Lakatos and Nikolaj Znaider, who brought the house down with their ‘little and large’ double act encore, and ersatz in the amplified form of Sophie Solomon; ersatz being defined in the dictionary as “not real or sincere”.

The Bacchanale from “Samson et Dalila” got the evening off to a fizzing start under the clear direction of François-Xavier Roth, one-time joint-winner of the Donatella Flick Conducting Competition; Roth whipped up a fine orgy in the closing bars.

There followed the American violinist Mark O’Connor’s protracted take on the seasons (with himself as soloist and a small band of LSO strings and a guitar; this was dreary beyond belief with its endless syncopation. O’Connor runs a Fiddle Camp near Nashville; having lived in Tennessee myself, what seemed totally lacking was the bounding energy of real Scots-Irish Appalachian fiddle-music. This was a pale imitation.

Worse was to follow, Sophie Solomon rediscovering her klezmer cultural roots. She studied Russian at Oxford and subsequently spent a year living in Russia where she developed a passion for Russian, East-European and gypsy music The three numbers from her debut album for Decca, “Poison Sweet Madeira”, at least had the merit of being well-scored for orchestra (by Jonathan Quarmby and James Brett) – not that the LSO got much of a look in over the amplified soloist, the guitar and accordion similarly made dominant. This was high-octane stuff, the soloist in tight black leather (and Wolford tights). “Holy Devil”, supposedly refers to Rasputin; the “wistful” ballad “Lazarus” was performed in simpering style by Martha Wainwright (“all the way from New York”), who was introduced as if it were the second coming, and the sequence culminated in a gloriously over-the-top klezmer-style dance. Madonna’s most recent video is positively dignified by comparison with Solomon’s absurd stage-antics. What was also deeply objectionable was the sense of the audience being treated simply as objects to be manipulated, and of the klezmer tradition having been hijacked as a fashionable vehicle for the performers.

Part one of the concert was rounded off by a ‘happy-slappy’ performance of the Hoe Down from Rodeo with a vocal contribution from the orchestra that Copland didn’t allow for!

However, all was redeemed by the second half, memorable from first note to last. Nikolaj Znaider’s performance of the Szymanowski was a genuine rediscovery of his roots – he was born in Denmark to Polish-Israeli parents – and he plays this frequently stratospheric music with extraordinarily pure intonation and finesse. Roth’s excitable handling of the orchestral part was a little too headlong; there is a quality of elusive repose and other-worldliness to this music which did not always come through, but the Scriabinesque climaxes were suitably orgasmic. Znaider’s handling of the solo part though – in particular the cadenza – was simply great violin-playing, as were the final bars where the violin vanishes into the ether in the aural equivalent of an Indian rope-trick.

This had been preceded by the premiere of Tim Garland’s Overture to the Life of a Real Boy; an unexpectedly serious jazz-implanted work conceived as a sequel to Pinocchio and triggered by the sight of the composer’s young son growing up. Articulate, well-scored and with its initial hustle and bustle gradually giving way to a more reflective mood as the boy faces the real world, and which received the best possible advocacy from an LSO clearly enthused by its new commission.

And so to the inimitable Roby Lakatos, who replaced the billed Ziguenerweisen (Sarasate) with “Memory of Bihari”. Diminutive in stature but gigantic in the tone he produces – like Mischa Elman, he has enormous sausage-like fingers, which may help explain his extraordinary sound quality. Lakatos has no need for spurious amplification; he is the real thing, playing with all the old-world charm that Alfredo Campoli used to bring to this repertoire. This sequence, “Memory of Bihari” segueing seamlessly into “Heyre Katy”, had the LSO string-players literally popping out of their seats to see how Lakatos conjured impossible pizzicatos out of nothing.

Back came Nikolaj Znaider, all 6-foot-plus of him, to join Lakatos in the theme from “Schindler’s List” and Monti’s Czárdás. All done with love and magic.

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