Nikolaj Znaider & LSO Chamber Ensemble at Bath International MusicFest

Verklärte Nacht, Op.4
String Sextet No.1 in B flat, Op.18

Nikolaj Znaider & David Alberman (violins), Edward Vanderspar (viola) & Gillianne Haddow (viola) and Tim Hugh & Rebecca Gilliver (cellos)

Reviewed by: Rian Evans

Reviewed: 29 May, 2009
Venue: Assembly Rooms, Bath

Nikolaj ZnaiderBath’s MusicFest was fortunate in securing a performance by hot-property Nikolaj Znaider. Since winning the Queen Elisabeth Competition (and before that the Carl Flesch), Znaider’s solo career has continued its stellar trajectory, but he continues to commit himself to conducting and for pursuing his chamber-music passion. Celebrity seems not to interest him and, indeed, his platform demeanour is almost reticent. Yet it is hard to avoid a comparison with the greatest names, not least because the 33-year-old Dane uses the violin on which Fritz Kreisler played. And it was in this respect that Znaider made his presence felt at this Assembly Rooms concert. It was not so much a case of a star-performer being flown-in to the set-up – his fellow-players were members of the London Symphony Orchestra – but that the sound he made was quite different from theirs. How could it not be? This ‘Guarneri del Gesù’ had a depth and sumptuous richness of tone that would set it apart even from an ensemble of Stradivarius instruments.

That said, the first half of the programme was not quite the overwhelming experience that one might expect of Schoenberg’s early masterwork in such circumstances; but that Verklärte Nacht should have begun so inauspiciously was not the fault of the performers. They had no sooner put their bows to the strings than a very young member of the audience began coughing with an alarming degree of ostentation. Such things are never helpful but, in the context of this piece where the hypnotic effect of its opening should instantly cast a magic spell over the proceedings, it felt like sabotage. The musicians gritted their teeth and, being consummate professionals, kept on course, albeit struggling. It was only gradually that Znaider and colleagues achieved a renewed sense of their purpose, with Tim Hugh’s eloquent projection of the first-cello line proving a vital force. And, as the lovers in Richard Dehmel’s narrative are transfigured in the moonlight, so this highly evocative and sensuous music succeeded in communicating something of its redemptive power.

If the Schoenberg constituted both a blooding and a bonding for them, Brahms’s Sextet (the first of two) certainly benefited. But, with string players, it often seems that the common legacy of Brahms’s sonatas and symphonies runs so deep enough as to find them arriving at his chamber music so intimately conversant with his language as to be able to plunge deep into the music without recourse to preliminary formalities or superficial niceties.

Here, the players basked in the lyricism of the opening theme in a way that was immediately compelling. With this unanimity established, Znaider appeared both to relax into the company and to lead by brilliant example. Even this early Brahms has a mellowness to which Znaider lent a burnished glow, with Tim Hugh’s playing coming close to him in expressiveness and intensity of feeling. The aching yearning of the viola’s theme in the Andante was invested with a degree of melancholy by Edward Vanderspar and answered with great poignancy by Znaider. The ensuing Variations balanced core discipline with more-spontaneous outbursts of feeling. The ensemble drove through the scherzo and trio with conviction before relaxing back into the expansive warmth of the finale and investing the last accelerando with nonchalant exuberance.

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