Ligeti & Mahler

Violin Concerto
Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor

Saschko Gawriloff (violin)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Jonathan Nott

Reviewed by: Tristan Jakob-Hoff

Reviewed: 5 December, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

György Ligeti’s Violin Concerto is a piece at odds with itself. Completed in 1992, it is a piece full of mood swings, veering between restlessness and merriment, soulfulness and eccentricity, eerie contemplation and slapstick comedy. It features one of the few tunes capable of humming that Ligeti ever wrote, the unaffected opening of the lovely second movement, alongside a bizarrely de-tuned ‘chorale’ played on four ocarinas. It is a work that places extreme demands on the soloist, who must play with the greatest of concentration and precision throughout, but the fifth movement cadenza is left entirely to the performer’s discretion.

Being a ‘new’ piece Ligeti’s Violin Concerto doesn’t get heard nearly as often as it ought to be, so this performance, with Saschko Gawriloff on the violin and Jonathan Nott on the podium, seemed like a very hot ticket indeed. It was Gawriloff, after all, whom Ligeti had in mind when he wrote the enormously taxing solo part, and it was he who gave the work its world premiere; the reputation of Nott, on the other hand, rests largely on his having been selected by Ligeti to record his orchestral works for posterity – a fine decision, judging by the results.

Performing with a small cross-section of the Philharmonia Orchestra, though, Gawriloff and Nott sounded distinctly at odds with each other. Gawriloff played with a warm if slightly faltering tone throughout, blending nicely with the first movement’s off-beat peasant rhythms, if less successfully with the chilly stillness of the fourth movement Passacaglia. Nott, however, conducted with cool detachment throughout, ensuring plenty of detail in the multi-layered orchestral score, but never quite bringing those layers together into a comprehensive whole. Unfortunately, so schizophrenic is this piece in terms of musical and emotional range that it requires a unanimous approach from soloist and orchestra to really work. Such an approach was not forthcoming, and however disarming and disparate this concerto might be, it merely came across as disconnected and disjointed.

The rest of the Philharmonia – and I dare say one or two members from its auxiliary corps – filed on after the break for Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Nott’s credentials in Mahler are less well established, but he did give an insightful and engaging account of the Fourth Symphony with his Bamberg Symphony Orchestra at the Proms this year, and he recorded the Fifth with the same orchestra in 2003 to general acclaim. I haven’t yet heard the latter but I did attend his Proms Fourth, which struck me as lithe and luminescent in a way this performance of the Fifth was not.

After an accomplished account of the first movement’s ‘Trauermarsch’ – with full marks going to Mark David’s superb opening trumpet solo – Nott’s conducting became oddly inflexible, even a little insensitive, in the unanticipated climaxes and sudden crescendos of the brutal second movement. I say brutal, but with rounded attacks and immaculately blended woodwinds, there was about as much violence here as in a Debussy Prélude.

The Fifth, however, is a symphony that really lives or dies by its scherzo – the longest such movement Mahler ever wrote – and its profusion of ländler and infectious waltz rhythms must come across with unpretentious gaiety to prevent the whole symphony from sagging in the middle. It certainly sounded pretty under Nott’s baton – and one cannot fault the Philharmonia’s playing, which was immaculate throughout – but it never really caught the spirit of the dance, coming across as overlong and overindulgent.

The famous (“Death in Venice”) Adagietto – a movement not unused to overlong interpretations – was the evening’s most pleasant surprise, breezing along at a svelte and songlike pace without the overlay of the soppy sentimentality that normally accompanies this music. It formed a sweet entrée to a decidedly savoury finale, whose absence of rustic charm was evident from the off. Clinically precise sonorities, fussy dynamics and odd choices of tempos only served to detract from what should be one of the most joyous of Mahler’s finales.

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