Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Violin Concerto No.2
The Stations of the Sun
Symphony No.5, Op.50
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: 15 December, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
With Mahler dominating the LPO’s current season this blessedly idiosyncratic happening gathered a smaller crowd. The evening’s opening attraction looked somewhat out of place but perhaps someone had seen in Egmont’s self-sufficient goal-directedness a foretaste of the Nielsen as well as an echo of Beethoven’s own Fifth. After uncertain beginnings it was decently done if a little stolid and lacking in cumulative excitement. Violins were conventionally seated together on the left of the conductor, the sound deep and full in the old-fashioned way.
Frank Peter Zimmermann is one of relatively few violinists of stature to have taken up Martinů’s Second Violin Concerto for all that the work was composed for a soloist of a rather different stripe. Writing in the New York Herald Tribune of January 1944, Paul Bowles emerged vaguely dissatisfied from an early performance given by its dedicatee Mischa Elman with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He complained of the music’s fragmentary nature, its tendency to travel through a landscape that doesn’t change or progress, and its over-reliance on orchestral sonority. The solo violin he likened to “an annoying insect whose sound the orchestra sometimes manages to chase away”. Zimmermann is a cooler sort of player than Elman – or Josef Suk for that matter – but he never sounded as if merely straining to get round the notes, of which there are many. If the ability to magic Martinů’s awkward chordal scraping into something sweetly melodic eluded him, the composer seemed chiefly to blame. Apart from the scherzo-like central section of the second movement, probably modelled on comparable moments in Prokofiev’s more mellifluous Second Violin Concerto, the writing lacks purpose. In Martinů’s best music those ever-shifting oscillating lines and surreal cadential chains uncover pockets of true nostalgic ecstasy. That rarely happened here.
Julian Anderson, the LPO’s new composer-in-residence, was represented by a work previously given by it in 2002. An indubitably accomplished BBC Proms commission, The Stations of the Sun (1998) is underpinned by a sense of colour and harmonic movement rare in the music of our time even if some of the more complex writing at its core feels a mite overstuffed. Its particular brand of lyricism sounded less overtly Tippettian than I had remembered, even in the climactic evocation of Easter bells and the subdued coda. Brighter and more forthright too, though that is very much a feature of Saraste’s own assured music-making – he elicits fewer real pianissimos.
I last heard Nielsen’s masterpiece in the performance by Sir Colin Davis and the LSO from October 2009 which has just appeared on that orchestra’s own label. It certainly is a masterpiece – Saraste’s thrilling account left no room for doubt – but the problem for the performers is how to prevent it seeming anti-climactic: the second movement can come across as an unnecessary appendage if the real issues appear to have been settled before it starts. Sir Colin’s solution was to re-imagine the first as a rural idyll, pressing through the second with greater abandon and a notably pressurised tempo for the constructive healing balm of its second fugal episode. Under Saraste the whole score moves forward more consistently, the excitement palpable but unremitting. What one missed in his concerto-for-orchestra approach was the sense of a struggle between stasis and progress (there being no doubt which faction would triumph). Plunging from incident to incident left us with few opportunities to appreciate the harmonic scenery, but what a journey!