LSO/Elder Joshua Bell

Jealousy Overture
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
The Fiddler’s Child – Orchestral ballad
Taras Bulba – Rhapsody for Orchestra

Joshua Bell (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
Mark Elder

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 18 February, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Unless my memory deceives me, I cannot think that Mark Elder has conducted the London Symphony Orchestra (in London anyway) for close on 25 years. One of the then new Barbican Centre’s initiatives was a series of Sunday afternoon ‘introduction to music’ concerts that were shown live on BBC2 (those were the days!) and hosted by John Amis. One such featured Walton’s Viola Concerto, with Nobuko Imai as soloist, with Elder (then a couple of years into his English National Opera tenure) conducting. Today, when not in Manchester as music director of the Hallé Orchestra, Elder is a regular in London with the Royal Opera, the London Philharmonic and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Elder’s ‘return’ to the LSO was a triumph, as it was for Janáček. Not only did Elder secure some really excellent playing, but the performances also suggested a goodly amount of rehearsal time had been judiciously used. Furthermore, balance was impeccable across the sections: golden-toned brass was always present but never dominating, and the strings had a warm and velvety timbre: if there is an ‘Elder Sound’, it was strikingly conjured here, the Barbican Hall seeming to have more depth than is often the case.

Although the LSO is familiar with Taras Bulba (Colin Davis has conducted it over recent seasons and the work featured in the 2002 Donatella Flick Conducting Competition, in which the LSO takes part), neither Jealousy nor The Fiddler’s Child are often played – something Elder, in his spoken introduction to the latter, alluded to. He then conducted an utterly compelling and revelatory account that suggested that the work’s neglect is scandalous. Apart from the gruesome story, graphically relayed by Elder in words and by Janáček in music, what compelled here was Elder’s exploration of the composer’s orchestral texture – utterly individual and striking, and ethereally beautiful, the tones of four solo violas quite haunting (and, somewhere, sound-wise, for a brief moment, a curious anticipation – 1914 to 1958 – of Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No.9!).

Guest Leader Andrew Haveron gave a rapturous account of the solo violin part in ‘Fiddler’s Child’ and found a depth of tone that had eluded Joshua Bell in Brahms’s concerto. This was a curious performance. Elder, baton-less for this work, set a very spacious tempo for the orchestral introduction; the movement’s (here) 24 minutes dragged and Bell, sweaty and facially intense, didn’t find enough concentration in the solo part. Furthermore, his own cadenza seemed better placed in a concerto by Paganini. I didn’t have that response in June 2004, when Bell played the Brahms with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Mackerras (in a concert that also included Taras Bulba). That account of the Brahms surged forth (a reflection of the different conductors?) and Bell’s own cadenza then (the same one?) was more convincing. While an expansive first movement can work, this one lacked internal momentum and was followed by an also-slow Adagio that offered no contrast. Kieron Moore’s oboe solo though was priceless. (And it was Moore playing – for the LSO has finally got around to listing the musicians actually playing on the night. Hurrah! One down on the double basses, though – eight were listed but nine played in the Janáček works!).

Only the finale of the Brahms caught fire, whereas Gordan Nikolitch and Colin Davis (in February 2005) had propelled through it from the off. But there was plenty to relish in the Janáček renditions. Jealousy (originally the prelude to “Jenůfa”) had impressed immediately – in emotional identity and finite balances, the LSO assured in negotiating unfamiliar and unpredictable music and entering into the score’s turbulence.

Taras Bulba was quite superb – the only weak link being the weedy electronic organ. (Oh, the folly that the Barbican planners made when not including a pipe organ into the Hall!) Other than that Elder secured a vividly detailed, cannily balanced account that satisfied narrative and musical structure, the work beginning, as it should, as if in mid-sentence and progressing through graphic, but not gratuitous, realisation of love, war, death and popular dance – the Mazurka of the second movement done with real venom, the closing bars, with clarinets trilling wildly, brought brazen splendour and a perfectly timed final chord.

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