Violin Concerto, The Red Violin [New York premiere]
Eine Alpensinfonie, Op.64
Joshua Bell (violin)
New York Philharmonic
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette
Reviewed: 14 January, 2006
Venue: Avery Fisher Hall, New York City
For his debut with the New York Philharmonic, the program first heard two nights earlier, Jonathan Nott juxtaposed a contemporary violin concerto, written between 1997 and 2003, with a Romantic symphony created almost a hundred years earlier, between 1911 and 1915. However, the two works have much more in common than one would initially think. Despite their different genres, they are really tone poems at heart – recalling a violin’s journey and a day in the mountains respectively. They both are also extremely atmospheric and colorful works.
John Corigliano’s concerto evolved from his score for the 1997 film “The Red Violin”. Its first incarnation as a concert piece was a 17-minute Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra; subsequently the composer added three more movements making it into a full-length, nearly-40-minute concerto for Joshua Bell, and dedicated to the memory of his father, also John, the one-time concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. The son of a concert violinist, then, Corigliano is intimately familiar with the instrument’s capabilities and possibilities, and he seems to be using them all here in the different contexts of each movement. The first movement, ‘Chaconne’, is most closely linked with the film and its themes for various characters; the second, ‘Pianissimo Scherzo’, is a fleeting pixie of a movement; the third, ‘Andante flautando’, is an elegy featuring interplay between the flute-like harmonics of the solo instrument and an alto flute; while last movement, ‘Accelerando Finale’, truly lives up to its name. The orchestra and soloist, seeming to ‘fiddle for his life’ at times, chase each other to the rousing conclusion, and the audience responded with a standing ovation. British conductor Jonathan Nott provided a very sympathetic and enthusiastic accompaniment. However, when he directed with his hands only, one wondered whether he might be even more expressive and precise if he followed the example of his colleague, Pierre Boulez, and did away with a baton altogether. Joshua Bell is the ideal interpreter of this work, a handsome young virtuoso who seems to revel in effortlessly tossing off the most challenging passages, who ‘sings’ the lyrical sections with a most beautiful tone, and whose commitment to this concerto is palpable.
In 1907 Richard Strauss used income from the success of his opera “Salome” to build a big villa in Garmisch, at the foot of Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze. From his desk he had the view of a spectacular alpine landscape, which no doubt influenced his decision to write his Eine Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony). It depicts a day in the mountains from before sunrise to after sunset with 22 different scenes on the way, from serene to bucolic to a violent thunderstorm. In addition to an immense orchestra Strauss employs an offstage group of 12 horns for the hunters’ calls, cowbells (did Mahler’s 6th Symphony inspire him?), a wind machine, a thunder sheet, two harps, organ and celesta, all in the pursuit of the most accurate, colorful representation of his chosen subject.
A virtuoso orchestra like the New York Philharmonic will pull out all the stops for a work like this, and the big moments were truly breathtaking. What was missing from this performance, however, was the other side of the coin – the clear mountain air, the simplicity, the repose, and the eerie calm before the storm. Jonathan Nott imbued the whole piece with an unrelenting forward momentum, never stopping to breathe, never truly relaxing, never truly quiet. His slightly awkward stance, legs planted stiffly, upper body always slightly pitched forward, always tense it seemed, may have worked against him in this respect. For a work that demands color and contrast, a little more relaxation emanating from the podium would have given an even better representation of Strauss’s magnificent vision.