Symphony in Three Movements
Violin Concerto, Op.36
Symphonic Dances, Op.45
Nikolaj Znaider (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 7 May, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
It would be difficult to encounter a more well-balanced concert than that given here by the London Symphony Orchestra and Valery Gergiev: three major works, written at equal intervals over a decade and each embodying an innately symphonic dimension without any of them being symphonies as such.
Certainly there is little sense of an organic evolution in Stravinsky’s Symphony of Three Movements (1945), and Gergiev did not try to render it as such. The indelible opening gesture was imperiously dispatched, and though the ensuing interplay of piano and orchestra lacked precision, momentum was well maintained through the ‘ghosting’ of a sonata-form dynamism which faltered only marginally in the ominous closing bars. The Andante was finely judged as a steady but not unduly slow intermezzo, harp ‘first among equals’ with strings and with a central section whose pathos was ideally inflected. A pity that the finale than failed to deliver – its parading opening music too heavy-handedly pointed and with the central fugue disengaged to the point where it was unable to generate the necessary impetus for what follows; the brazen final bars sounding far too portentous to be properly decisive.
The emotional detachment of Stravinsky’s symphony manqué might seem light years away from the expressive intensity of Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto (1936). Nikolaj Znaider is ideally placed in terms of temperament and technique to meet its demands head-on, and what resulted was finely conceived and convincingly executed. At 33 minutes, there was a faint doubt that the outer movements were not ideally taut – thus the densely-wrought sonata form of the first movement marginally lost focus in the extended cadenza, as did the finale’s equally tensile sonata-rondo in its accompanied cadenza that is also an inclusive reprise of the whole work – the ensuing rapprochement between soloist and orchestra being less than fully inevitable. What did come off was the central movement – Brahmsian wistfulness melding with Schoenbergian eloquence in the most poised of the composer’s interludes.
Perhaps it was his playing from the score that prevented Znaider from delivering a wholly uninhibited response. Than again, this could have been due to Gergiev’s secure but overly self-absorbed handling of the orchestral part – the timbral and dynamic subtleties of Schoenberg’s writing given a degree of uniformity such as failed to do it full justice. Even so, there was no lack of overall commitment, and Znaider will hopefully go on to give further performances (and maybe a recording) of what increasingly seems a defining masterpiece not only of Schoenberg’s output but also of inter-war Western music.
The oblique symphonic link running through this programme was reinforced by the final work: indeed, had Rachmaninov called the Symphonic Dances (1941) his ‘Fourth Symphony’, few would surely have demurred. Gergiev seemed to think so, and his way with the first movement (its ‘Non allegro’ marking properly observed) paid dividends in the way the soulful central section – the alto saxophone melody meltingly delivered by John Stenhouse – was integrated into the trenchant music on either side. The central waltz (rather, waltz-fantasy) found an ideal balance between suavity and malevolence, while the finale – with its coursing outer sections permeated by the fervour of sacred chant and a central span whose expressive apotheosis is achieved through harmony and texture rather than melody as such – was powerfully rendered: those final chords a QED of unmistakable conclusiveness.