La forza del destino – Overture
Violin Concerto, Op.14
Symphony No.6 in B-minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)
Elena Urioste (violin)
London Schools Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker
Reviewed: 9 May, 2019
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
A nicely balanced traditional programme this, with only Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto seemingly an out-of-the-way item, although his musical language is not one that would have raised the eyebrows of either of the other composers represented, despite the occasional miscalculation which Barber’s inherent qualities always overcome.
Those miscalculations are in practicalities of structure: to begin a Concerto with both soloist and orchestra together from bar 1 is fraught with difficulties: is the tempo the soloist has in mind the same as that of the conductor? For purely practical reasons, it may have been better to give the soloist a couple of bars of orchestral ‘get ready’ – as in Mendelssohn’s E-minor Violin Concerto – to avoid any initial pressure on all parties, although it is the soloist who sets the pulse against the orchestral chord. The soloist’s delayed entry in the slow movement tends to raise the emotional stakes through material which does not carry such expression consistently. Finally, the unremitting hectic pulse of the Finale does need, for various reasons, some variety.
Perhaps those thoughts went through the mind of the rehearsal pianist for the work’s European premiere, in Paris in 1950, conducted by Barber, for that pianist was – unbelievably for us today – Pierre Boulez, but even he, one might think, would have recognised the qualities of this Violin Concerto, surely the finest such work by an American composer.
It is the work’s inherent merits – melodic distinction, structural originality and magnificently effective writing for the solo instrument (if not invariably suited to the violin) as well as the orchestra – which have almost established it as a repertoire piece, certainly for American soloists, of whom Elena Urioste is an outstandingly fine example.
The concert opened with the Overture to Verdi’s La forza del destino, oddly translated in the programme as “The Power of Fate”. This inherently dramatic masterpiece of emotion-setting and intensity immediately challenges any orchestra with the so-called ‘fate’ motif threatening and pulse-intensifying – or should so appear from a wholly committed performance, which this was. The playing of these gifted young musicians would not have embarrassed a fully-professional orchestra, the brass section very well-balanced at the opening, the inherent turbulence of the music at all times excellently conveyed under Richard Farnes’s commanding baton.
Having demonstrated its undoubted musicianship in the Overture, the LSSO appeared positively inspired for its partnership of Elena Urioste. As already pointed out, the Barber poses several problems for soloist and orchestra. From those first bars, it was clear that Urioste and Farnes were as one, allowing the music to speak and express the composer’s originality and expressive character. Urioste was quite outstanding, tossing off the occasional fearsome difficulties with genuine musical technique. Barber’s violin-writing for soloist and orchestra is not wholly idiomatic, but the difficulties it poses were fully mastered by all concerned and one must also commend the balance, which was well-nigh-ideal.
On the basis of the concert’s first half, one was looking forward to the Tchaikovsky, but for various reasons – although very well played – Farnes’s account was curiously unsatisfying. Throughout, one felt his basic tempos were too fast – a question of interpretative degree rather than wholly metronomic – and the work simply failed to cohere overall. Nor was the internal balance as well-judged as one might have expected. Farnes may be an experienced conductor of opera, but in this familiar example from the symphonic repertoire the work’s inherent tonal and structural cohesion, and its combined expressive impact, were only intermittently present.