London Philharmonic/Kreizberg Julia Fischer – Dvořák & Shostakovich

Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.53
Symphony No.4 in C minor, Op.43

Julia Fischer (violin)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Yakov Kreizberg

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 16 April, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Julia FischerOn January 1st this year Julia Fischer made her debut … as a pianist playing Grieg’s Piano Concerto at Frankfurt’s Alte Oper with Sir Neville Marriner conducting. At the same concert she also played Glazunov’s Violin concerto. Later the same week she repeated the feat, playing both these concertos in St Petersburg. On this occasion she confined herself to the violin, although she did join the audience for the Shostakovich.

What was immediately striking in Dvořák’s Violin Concerto was the sheer quality of the partnership between soloist and conductor. Seldom does one hear such unanimity of approach. This was a magisterial account from Fischer closely matched by an orchestral accompaniment that fitted the soloist like the proverbial glove. Fischer straddled the dual role of soloist and chamber musician with an acute sense of the two roles needed for this work. She also prepared transitions with extraordinary finesse and held the audience on the finest thread of sound, as in the slow movement’s final measures, horns magically secure in the distance.

Given musicianship of this order it seems invidious to express reservations, even minor ones, but one could not help but feel that for all the splendour of the playing a dimension was missing. Although there is a reasonable case for approaching Dvořák via Brahms, and there is undoubtedly an heroic dimension to the concerto, but in both the outer movements it felt as though all concerned were striving too hard for grandeur when something less pressured would have served the music better; the finale cried out for an infusion of unfettered joy. However, the Adagio’s extended meditation was graced by particularly fine flute and oboe solos and here Fischer’s elevated playing was perfectly in place.

No wonder Shostakovich withdrew his Fourth Symphony. Not only is it the most protracted and determinedly anarchic scream of musical pain in the literature but Shostakovich had also just fallen foul of Stalin’s wrath over “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, leading to the infamous article in “Pravda” in January 1936 denouncing that opera’s “pornographic” libretto and Shostakovich’s music as “a gibberish of notes instead of music”. Started in 1935 and completed the following May in the midst of the Purges, the symphony only received its first performances some 25 years later – I remember Gennadi Rozdestvensky giving the first public performance in the West with the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Edinburgh Festival in September 1962, the first performance having taken place some two years earlier with Kyril Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic.

This is music at once visceral, menacing, manic and sickeningly unpredictable, where the grandiose and the banal frequently co-exist, often eliding seamlessly into each other in the most unexpected ways as when one of the finale’s most intense moments slips into a waltz. Above all it is a work for which the phrase “Into the Whirlwind” might well have been coined, had it not already been appropriated as a metaphor for Stalin’s Purges. No wonder the Great Dictator hated Shostakovich’s music, which so perfectly held up a musical mirror to his rule. There are moments in the Fourth Symphony pushes everything to extremes and well beyond as in the first movement’s furiously demented string fugue or in the double basses’ relentlessly muttered ostinato in the finale, itself a parody of a motif from a Mahler Ländler, before the work eventually subsides into an exhausted glacial silence. (By contrast, the Fifth Symphony seems almost a model of symphonic rectitude with each moment leading logically to the next.)

Yakov KreizbergSt Petersburg-born and Ilya Musin-trained, Yakov Kreizberg has this symphony in his bones. Nor was there the slightest doubt as to the quality of the London Philharmonic’s response. The first obligation of the conductor is to lead an orchestra through a work with total security and on this occasion Kreizberg energised his vast forces (111 players) with exceptional clarity, cues clearly given, his intentions completely explicit. For all his sometimes jerky gestures and hyper-intensity, this was a very considered slow-burn account, adopting a slowish tempo at the work’s outset but with visceral attack, finding the antithesis of quietude of the second subject and not afraid to confront the frequently fragmentary nature of the music head-on.

The Mahlerian Moderato con moto second movement is frequently treated as a kind of make-weight intermezzo, a respite between the two massive outer ones, but was given here with unusually decisive vigour, giving it added weight. Mahlerian shadows spilled over into the finale with an extremely slow opening funeral march and an eloquent solo from oboist Ian Hardwick before the main Allegro was launched with terrific power. There is a ‘gallows humour’ to this bleakest of movements, near-quotes from “The Magic Flute” and caustic humour before the final vortex is unleashed. This is music at its most profoundly discomfiting. It received a performance all the more powerful for its complete clarity of focus.

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