Song for Betty [UK premiere]
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14
Joshua Bell (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 5 November, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
Programme building is an art. Maybe Song for Betty was intended as a contrasting dreamscape (assuming one perceives it in these terms) to the fevered imagination of Berlioz, or placed as an ’encore’ to the triptych of Saariaho’s pieces the LPO played the season before last, or intended as a token gesture to adventurous scheduling. These six minutes of crystalline textures, precisely imagined sounds and expressive solos (written for Betty Freeman’s 80th, she being “a generous and far-sighted patron of new music”) came and went as an ephemeral ’curtain raiser’. Song for Betty would have made more impression in a different context.
Otherwise, it was very familiar terrain, although Max Bruch’s G minor concerto is an evergreen gem (yet how nice to have heard one of his other two violin concertos or the Scottish Fantasy…). Here it lost out to an unkempt, overwrought and over-visceral Joshua Bell. While he did occasionally spin some gentle lyricism, his stance suggested a fencer, bow as epée, the violin dug into – intonation suffered, tone was rough and phrasing throbbed unappealingly. The finale was too fast, the music forfeited to spurious bravura.
Louis Langrée’s conducting – flexible, fiery and passionate – seemed more mellifluously appreciative of Bruch’s particular sensibility. Langrée did well with the Berlioz in its early stages, alive to poetic and dramatic possibilities, not least in terms of detail and dynamics, yet by the last two movements a rut had set in. For all that Langrée phrased without indulgence (maybe, indeed, he was too strict) and appreciated Berlioz’s classical lineage (both repeats were in place) and responded vividly to Berlioz’s fervid daydreams and nightmares as being orchestral theatre, the predictability of his design became more and more resistible. The March to the Scaffold, neither slow nor glowering enough, elicited applause – one can only presume the audience was ignorant of the fifth movement still to come (and indeed the possibility of an attacca from emphatic final chord to eerie high-lying violins, such as Gergiev and Tilson Thomas effect). Audiences! One guy started to applaud after the ’guillotine chord’ and someone did nothing about a repeater-alarm that blotted the pastoral third movement!
Langrée, demonstrative and intense, at least called for real church bells (which, however, lacked sinister resonance) in the Witches’ Sabbath finale. Yet, despite some rampant virtuosity from the LPO, this seemed more a concerto for orchestra than the creation of ghoulish fantasy. For all the excitement generated, there’s a more extensive soundworld to be found, here limited to velocity and vivid projection.