Fragment for the Virgin
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43
Nicola Benedetti (violin)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Edward Clark
Reviewed: 15 May, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
This is a delicate, transparently beautiful work full of light and shade, ebb and flow, not at all easy to bring off. Benedetti captured the essence of the work with poised tone, immaculate intonation, and phrasal sweep that impressed deeply. She deserves credit for bringing this work back into the concert hall. Perhaps that will be her secret in years to come, to play works that are severely neglected but deserve the widest audience. Let’s hope she looks at the marvellous Six Humoresques by Sibelius as well as his famous concerto.
Fragment for the Virgin by Sir John Tavener, written for Benedetti, lasts four minutes yet gives the impression of a longer vista through contrasts of sonority and was well presented by the soloist and strings of the orchestra. Saint-Saëns’s Havanaise used to be a concert hall regular but appears infrequently today, so all credit to Benedetti for playing it with style and panache.
The concert began with the marvellous open-air fanfares of Janáček’s Sinfonietta played on auxiliary brass positioned behind the orchestra. David Murphy, conducting without the score, guided the players with considerable skill through the ever-changing evocation of joyous celebration of a life-time’s experience of writing idiosyncratic music that is both profound and playful.
The concert ended with Sibelius’s most popular symphony. The conductor’s recent research into the composer’s intentions regarding tempo relationships produced a swift pulse in the first movement. The work was originally conceived as a four-movement suite based on the Don Juan legend where death and resurrection were the main ingredients for artistic inspiration. A remarkable transformation to a four-movement abstract symphony occurred between the sketching of the music in Italy to the writing of the final version soon afterwards in Finland. Sibelius’s daughter contracted typhus while the family accompanied him in Italy and, fearing she would follow the same fate as an older sister who had succumbed to typhus only a year or so earlier, Sibelius evidently suffered something of a nervous breakdown. His anxiety can be heard in the symphony and a fast initial tempo in the first movement produces a sensation of fluctuating emotions grounded in a querulous state of mind.
The slow movement, with material largely intact from the Don Juan music, probes well below the surface of what is normally expected in a late Romantic symphony. Huge brass perorations are followed by ethereal passages on the strings, well conveyed in this performance. The release of tension in the scherzo leads to one of the great moments in the work; a huge outpouring of emotion achieved through a great swinging theme on full orchestra providing a link into the finale, the main theme of which, repeated over and over again, was inspired by the recent death by suicide of Sibelius’s sister-in-law. The closing peroration displays Sibelius’s ability to convert an instinctive fear of an uncertain fate to a sense of triumph over adversity. Long thought of as paean to nationalist pride, the Second Symphony now appears to be a testament of the composer’s belief in the human spirit.
Murphy captured this side of the composer’s humanity superbly well and the final moments produced a surge of optimism after the travails heard earlier. It was a considerable achievement. We should hear more from this gifted conductor.