Isle of Bliss
Violin Concerto in B minor, Op.61
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47
Julia Fischer (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 15 December, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
Elgar’s Violin Concerto has ceased to be the preserve of English players and conductors: over the last 18 months London has heard performances from Midori, Boris Brovtsyn, Gil Shaham and Hilary Hahn, the most personal conducting coming from Zubin Mehta, for Midori. To this list must now be added Julia Fischer, a German. She has that essential Elgarian quality of being able to hold an audience in rapt communion and uncover those moments of stillness at the music’s heart. This was nowhere better manifested than in the finale’s ‘accompanied cadenza’ that capped the performance with a combination of breathtaking technical security, especially in the more stratospheric reaches, allied to the deepest introspection. Fischer seems to have an intuitive feeling for the concerto’s key moments – for example, leading to the cadenza she remained absolutely motionless, helping to create exactly the right atmosphere for her entry, whilst earlier in the movement she had perfectly grasped the unique but elusive fragility of the heart-stopping moment when the wistful second theme arrives. Elsewhere, her superlatively assured playing rode the crests of orchestral waves, effortlessly embedding itself in the textures, yet never having to strain to be heard. On occasion Vänskä and the LPO made rather heavy weather of the orchestral part, but never so much as to spoil one’s enjoyment of a quite remarkably mature and thrilling rendition of the solo part.
About the Shostakovich there were reservations. Vänskä is a fine musician; however, his base tempo for the first movement was simply too slow – for most of its span it felt becalmed – whereas the trick is to disguise the transitions leading up to the burst of frenetic activity at the movement’s heart. Similarly in the scherzo (its irony is implicit) Vänskä’s deliberate tempo might just have worked with a more deadpan approach, but with every I dotted and every T crossed, it simply became laborious. Much better were the slow movement, sometimes hovering on the edge of audibility but with an impassioned climax, and the finale’s grinding peroration, massively spacious and rammed home.
The concert had opened with Rautavaara’s short tone poem, Isle of Bliss, a rapturous, delicately scored fantasia growing from his opera based on the life of the 19th-century Finnish poet and playwright Aleksis Kivi, the ageing author sings about his unfulfilled youthful longing for an imaginary ‘isle of bliss’. Vänskä conducted this luminous music to the manner born.