LSO/Marin Alsop – Bartók & Rachmaninov – James Ehnes plays Korngold’s Violin Concerto

Guildhall Artists at the Barbican
Korngold
Piano Trio in D, Op.1
Trio Isimsiz [Pablo Hernán Benedi (violin), Michael Petrov (cello) & Erdem Misirlioğlu (piano)]

Bartók
Divertimento for Strings
Korngold
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Rachmaninov
Symphonic Dances, Op.45

James Ehnes (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop


Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: 7 June, 2015
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Marin AlsopPhotograph: Grant LeightonChoosing European composers who settled in the USA between two world wars makes an interesting theme for any concert. That the pieces selected were from amongst the best of Bartók, Korngold and Rachmaninov, and written within less than a decade of one another, made further sense. So performances by the LSO, Marin Alsop and James Ehnes (supposedly hailed as the “Jascha Heifetz of our day”) should have brought dividends to this collaborative thinking – and for much of the evening it did.

Bartók’s Divertimento provided a thorough workout for the LSO’s strings which rose to the occasion magnificently. But this music (written in fifteen days in 1939, a year before Bartók left Hungary for the States) was intended for Paul Sacher’s Basle Chamber Orchestra – an ensemble with considerably smaller forces than the 50 or so players facing Marin Alsop. Therein lay the problem: in the outer movements there was often just too much weight and the sprung rhythms were leaden. But even conceding the superb ensemble, the excellent solo contributions and the uniformity of articulation, there was, nonetheless, an unwieldy quality about this performance. Despite Alsop’s well-judged tempos and dependable efficiency, her hunched shoulders and outsize gestures made heavy weather of the opening Allegro’s alternating metres, and any sense of its light, carefree mood never had a chance. Muted strings improved things in the restless lines of the Adagio where she created a marvellous sense of line through its chilling landscape.

James EhnesPhotograph: Benjamin EalovegaNext came Erich Wolfgang Korngold, that child prodigy and last of the great romantics. His extraordinary career bridged the realm of concert music, opera and film scores and spanned the diverse worlds of Richard Strauss and Errol Flynn. That his Violin Concerto (1947) had been programmed as part of the LSO’s International Violin Festival is a sure-fire indication of how far this work has travelled up the popularity ratings in recent years. But it was curious to see that Elgar, Prokofiev and Walton were conspicuously absent. Ehnes has recorded the Korngold (Onyx) so we were in safe hands – indeed his fingers made light of the work’s demands and its effortless lyricism is made for Ehnes’s deep-pile-carpet tone. With controlled vibrato and faultless intonation this was an account where technical gifts were never in doubt, but he left me unmoved and, in the wistful slow movement, I would happily have traded some of that supersize talent for hearing some soul. This very nearly arrived (but not quite) in John Williams’s ‘Theme’ from Schindler’s List that served as a beautifully played encore neatly underlining Korngold’s Jewish background.

After the interval, relieved from its duties as accompanists and colourists, the LSO could now showcase its individual and collective talents in Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances (1940). More richly-scored than the Korngold, it is a work that proved to be the composer’s swansong. Fortunately there was little sense of valediction in this well-paced account in which the LSO responded with deep commitment to the lavish writing. A poignant alto-saxophone solo (Simon Haram) was one of many illuminating passages in the opening movement, while the brass produced appropriate snarls within the second one and leader Roman Simovic added his glassy tone to this macabre waltz. Finally, horns and trumpets blazed thrillingly for their ‘Dies Irae’ in the finale bringing a highly polished account to a close.

Earlier in the evening there had been considerable shine from three gifted Guildhall School students who gave Korngold’s Piano Trio – a four-movement work of astonishing maturity completed and first-performed before the composer had reached his 13th-birthday in April 1910. No wonder Webern was jealous of this precocious youth. It was good to hear pre-echoes of the Violin Concerto’s expansive lyricism in this thoroughly prepared reading that amply illustrated the three players’ expressive talents.

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