LSO/Gergiev Nikolaj Znaider – Stravinsky, Korngold & Rachmaninov

Symphony in Three Movements
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Symphonic Dances, Op.45

Nikolaj Znaider (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 8 May, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Valery GergievThe Stravinsky and Rachmaninov pieces were retained from the previous night with Korngold’s Violin Concerto replacing Schoenberg’s example.

Valery Gergiev conducted a too-deliberate account of the Stravinsky (completed in 1945), the outer movements lacking, respectively, menace and parody (the ultimate coda without the charge to round things off conclusively). Some crudeness (not least from trumpets) intruded in fortissimos, although the piano (John Alley) and harp (Bryn Lewis) were beautifully clear in their concertante roles. Conversely the middle movement lacked poise and radiance as part of a performance that was rather too outside a score generated by wartime events and, in purely musical terms, while hard-working and efficient (if just a little uncertain at times), was not identified enough to sustain a potential masterpiece here too objectively realised to release its full inspiration (unlike 40 years ago when the LSO made an electrifying benchmark recording with Colin Davis).

Nikolaj ZnaiderSimilarly, in Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s pure-pleasure Violin Concerto, Nikolaj Znaider – with score (surprising) and without tie (trendy!) – gave a fine demonstration of how to play a violin with sweetness of tone and voluptuous phrases, but it was also rather unvaried and contrived. The first movement was attractively chaste at times (but the noisy cymbal-bashed coda upset things), the slow movement dragged and the finale had its repartee overdone; this is music with a film-score basis (“Another Dawn”, “Anthony Adverse”, “The Prince and the Pauper” and others) that requires to be played with ease and directness (such as by Jascha Heifetz in his classic recording) but was here rather too manipulated and impersonal.

Not so the Rachmaninov – like the Stravinsky and Korngold it was composed in the early 1940s – his last music (and no stranger to London in recent weeks) and given here a stunning performance: this was a concert of two halves, very appropriate as the audience included Fabio Capello!

Gergiev was visually far more involved than earlier, the LSO (at its very best) now finding greater heart and soul as well as finer blend and balance. Another classic recording was here conjured, from Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Symphonic Dances composed for them). Gergiev judged the marking of Non allegro for the first movement to perfection (it wasn’t fast!), giving it a trenchancy and punch that belies the work’s title (effectively it is Symphony No.4). With the central section beautifully expressive (a dignified saxophone solo from John Stenhouse), LSO strings soaring, and Gergiev hitting the opening tempo exactly for what counts as the recapitulation, this was inspired music-making. The nostalgic coda (with a look-back to then-thought-lost Symphony No.1) cued the macabre fantasy of the succeeding waltz-movement and then it was straight into the finale – thankfully the audience was free of those who applaud between movements!

The last movement is death-haunted music –– the composer on fire and reminiscing restlessly. Gergiev and the LSO caught the moods unerringly, the conductor expanding the Orthodox elements with spine-chilling emotion and then driving the final bars to plummet over the edge – no ‘solo’ gong stroke (as some conductors do, but not Ormandy), just a brutal cut-off, which seems ‘just right’. This great work was brought off with compelling insight; when it appears on LSO Live – as it surely must – it will take some beating.

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