Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.77
Concerto for Orchestra
Mayuko Katsumura (violin)
Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker
Reviewed: 22 April, 2012
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
This distinguished programme was certainly one for connoisseurs, and in terms of musical commitment they would not have been disappointed. It is quite remarkable how Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto has become an international repertoire work – as, indeed, it deserves to be – with the result that this masterpiece is today far better known to concert-goers than used to be the case.
But such relative familiarity means that audiences are more demanding of the musicians who perform this Concerto: it is no longer sufficient to be able to play the work accurately – no mean achievement though that be – and whilst there was no denying Mayuko Katsumura’s technical and musical command of the work (these were impressive qualities), nor her deep seriousness in coming to terms with the profundities of the score, we occasionally wished for a somewhat fatter tone, to fill the acoustic of Cadogan Hall more readily – at times, the inherent understatements of the music (especially in the opening ‘Nocturne’) led this gifted player to adopt a more intimate expression than was entirely suitable in the circumstances. But in the remaining movements – especially in the long cadenza, which was most excellently played, and in the toe-tapping finale – Katsumura was wholly convincing.
Yet there remained an element of what might be termed nervousness in the two large slow movements: that opening ‘Nocturne’ was surely taken a shade too fast – the inherent contemplation of the music not being allowed to unfold at its own, more intimate, pace – and the same comment could be applied to the third-movement ‘Passacaglia’. In this, one has to consider the contribution of Enrico Marconi, which was undeniably competent but in those slow movements prone to lesser degrees of the moulding of expression and the creation of atmosphere than are necessary.
Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra predates Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto by just a few years, yet it entered the repertoire much more quickly. Not that any orchestra will necessarily know Bartók’s music intimately – and it remains a very difficult score – but it is no longer an unknown quantity, either to musicians or to regular concert-goers. Marconi clearly knows and admires this masterpiece, delivering an account which was high in voltage and musical enthusiasm, but which (as in his contributions to the Shostakovich Concerto) tended to veer too much on the faster side than is necessary. The inherent excitement of his interpretation, and the virtuosic playing of the Philharmonia Orchestra (especially in the hectic finale, which was overdone in that regard) undoubtedly brought a frisson to the score, but at the expense of refinement, of gentler elements – especially in the ‘Giuco delle coppie’ second movement, which lacked poise and a genuine sense of humorous phrasing.
There were, to be sure, admirable examples of committed corporate string playing, especially from the violins in those powerful stretches of unison strength, but there was never a moment’s relaxation in this performance, and the intonation of the lower strings in the opening bars of the Bartók was not of the quality one has come to expect from this orchestra. Nonetheless, these observations ought not to detract from performances that remained musical throughout: anyone hearing these scores for the first time would have been impressed.