Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Vadim Repin (violin)
NDR Symphony Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette
Reviewed: 27 March, 2007
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City
Mendelssohn’s E minor Violin Concerto (his second, there’s also one in D minor) is one of the best-known of concertos, loved for its grace, wit and charm. Every budding violinist plays this piece that somehow nearly always manages to lift one’s spirits. This performance by Vadim Repin though managed to leave this listener strangely unmoved, even bored. Everything was in its place, every note was well executed, if somewhat on the sharp side, and the spiccato in the finale was most impressive. But yet, it was a very routine performance: there was no spirit, no joy in Repin’s playing. He has a gorgeous tone, but when he applies it in equal measure everywhere, allowing only for dynamic variation, he deprives himself of the many colors and shades the violin is capable of producing. Delivered with almost grim determination, this concerto came across more as an exercise.
Unfortunately Mahler’s First Symphony did not fare much better in terms of color and atmosphere. After the briefest of mysterious moments in the opening bars, Christoph von Dohnányi (Principal Conductor of the Hamburg-based North German Radio Symphony Orchestra) soon left that realm and blithely moved ahead, in spite of Mahler’s very clear instructions to start the opening theme in a very relaxed manner and to only gradually reach the main tempo of the movement. For the rest of the symphony as well, the conductor seemed determined to even-out tempos as much as possible. The trio of the second movement was taken just marginally slower than the outside sections, and in the Klezmer-influenced passages of the third, Dohnányi did his best to straightjacket the music into the rigid framework of the prevailing march tempo. The finale did not open “wildly” nor did it end gloriously, even with the seven horns standing. When there is no internal tension to start with, one cannot reach a liberating, triumphant resolution.
The concert had opened with the most satisfying work of the evening, György Ligeti’s Lontano (Distant). In spite of Dohnányi’s many superfluous, metronomic beats, the orchestra managed to evoke the sense of line and space the composer was striving for. He himself has characterized the work as opening and closing “a window on long-submerged dream-worlds of childhood”. Starting on a repeated single pitch, Ligeti gradually broadens the tonal spectrum, at one point ending up with only the highest harmonic capable on the violin and a low tuba note. He works with clusters of orchestral color, only hinting at shifting harmonic areas, eschewing rhythm, and almost foregoing melody as well for long stretches. When melodic fragments finally emerge, they are immediately softened by heterophonic dispersion in the most idiomatic Hungarian tradition: finally they dissolve again into the “closing window”.