LPO/Perlman – 12 November

The Marriage of Figaro – Overture
Violin Concerto No.1 in D
Symphony No.9 in C, D944 (Great C major)

Ilya Gringolts (violin)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Itzhak Perlman

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 12 November, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Ilya Gringolts’s playing of Prokofiev’s elusive first violin concerto, with his teacher and mentor conducting, was altogether rather special. With Itzhak Perlman a great interpreter of the piece, one might have expected it to be a case of “His Master’s Voice”. However, despite Gringolts’s youth (he’s 21), he clearly has a mind of his own and his interpretation was no pale imitation of Perlman’s. To his enormous credit, Perlman put his considerable talents as a conductor at the service of his soloist.

Completed on the eve of the October Revolution, Prokofiev’s concerto is a courageous choice for a young soloist. Starting and ending quietly, it is no sure-fire success (unlike Prokofiev’s better-known No.2) even though, in between, lies enough virtuoso writing to stretch the very best technique. Indeed, it is the opening and ending which linger in the memory from Gringolts; the beginning gently unfolded like a time-lapse shot of a rare orchid coming into flower, while the stratospheric slow-fade conclusion produced a concentrated hush.

Gringolts’s sound has a rare confiding gentleness, which is at a remove from some of the more aggressive violin playing to be heard today. Gringolts seems speak to an audience effortlessly (rather as a great singer or actor does who does not need to jockey for attention). This was a gentle performance with a relatively non-pressured scherzo, the whole notable for musicality rather than fireworks and also for the LPO’s exceptionally integrated accompaniment.

Despite one or two minor intonation problems in the first movement, Gringolts drew us into this evasive piece, a real achievement. Interestingly, in a recent interview, he is quoted as particularly admiring Menuhin, an instructive choice.

The Figaro overture was big-band Mozart – and none the worse for that – the LPO’s strings spry and spruce. The Schubert, though, was something of a disappointment. A good, traditional performance would be the best description, but somehow in this of all music one hopes for something more. Speeds throughout were unobjectionable – unless one craves a quicker Andante opening – but what was really lacking were those long-term contractions and expansions of tension which give shape and direction to the outer movements.

The more-episodic second movement (Andante con moto) fared much better, the berceuse-like second subject and the movement’s final farewell being shaped with the sort of eloquence and feeling for identity which, by comparison, made the first and last movements seem rather plain. If these two movements are not to outstay their welcome, and culminate satisfactorily, there needs to be an unsettling sense of shifting perspectives and more-subtle characterisation of contrasting material. When we finally reached the symphony’s repeated octave Cs there was little sense of jubilation, abandon or arrival. Nonetheless, a memorable concert – above all a musicianly one.

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