Five Fragments, Op.42
Violin Concerto No.1, Op.35
Symphony No.4 in C minor, Op.43
Carolin Widmann (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 16 January, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Karol Szymanowski has certainly come in from the cold over the last two decades, though even as characteristic and accessible a work as his First Violin Concerto (1916) has yet fully to establish itself in the repertoire. As with most of his mature output, the rhapsodic, even intuitive progress of the soundworld belies the cunning with which its ideas emerge from each other and are transformed. Inspiration comes from Tadeusz Micinski’s poem “May Night”, a conflation of the exotic and the ecstatic typical of its period, but beyond this lies a vulnerability stemming from knowledge of a hostile reality.
Gratifying to see that a number of younger violinists are now tackling the work – not least Carolin Widmann. The fine-spun yet tensile virtuosity of her playing may have been most apparent in the brief though climactic cadenza, but (a slight awkwardness in her initial entry notwithstanding) purity of tone and elegance of line were evident throughout. Vladimir Jurowski balanced the lush yet always translucent orchestral writing with an awareness of where the deceptively rhapsodic structure was headed. Hopefully this partnership will tackle the very different Second Concerto in a future season.
The background to Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony – completed after his ‘fall from grace’ in 1936 then withdrawn from rehearsal at the end of that year, not to be performed for a further quarter-century – is well known. Yet before starting work in the summer of 1935, he wrote Five Fragments not intended for public hearing (they were given as late as 1965). It makes sense to include them in the same concert, Jurowski cannily adopting the order 1-2-4-5-3 which approximates more closely to the symphony’s follow-through. Nor were they lost in the expanse of the Royal Festival Hall acoustic.
Which acoustic is necessary for the vast dynamic range of the Fourth Symphony. Hardly the rarity it was until the composer’s death, it remains a testing work to being off – its wealth of ideas needing to be presented in the context of a structure that can easily sprawl. That it cohered so well here was, in part, due to Jurowski’s relatively swift tempos (at 57 minutes, there can have been few faster performances), but also the care with which he pointed up its far-reaching motivic connections and joined nominally disparate sections so that the lengthy outer movements never seemed unduly prolix.
In particular, the first movement unfolded as a single span of often febrile energy. Climaxes were for the most part rendered with exemplary clarity (the occasionally tentative entry forgivable given the size of the forces involved), with the development’s manic string fugato as tightly focussed as the coda evinced the right inward intensity. Jurowski pitched the relatively brief second movement ideally between ‘scherzo’ and ‘intermezzo’, its alternating themes as replete with ominous undertones as was the arresting percussion ostinato of the closing bars. The funeral march that opens the finale had the right deadpan humour before opening-out expressively into a resplendent climax, then the adept pacing of the toccata-like section ensured its degree of repetition never seemed mindless. The divertissement can seem an indulgent parenthesis, but Jurowski ensured its motivic connections within the movement as a whole were everywhere apparent. Other conductors have summoned more inexorable power from the anti-apotheosis, and a more fatalistic sense of oblivion from the final pages, but the continuity with what went before was self-evident as the piece withdrew into silence.
Never imposing a pre-conceived ‘interpretation’ on this most multifaceted of works, Jurowski made it more possible for listeners to make up their own minds. Microphones were in evidence so hopefully his account will soon be issued on the LPO’s own label: this being a performance worth preserving.