Karelia – Suite, Op.11
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36
Julian Rachlin (violin)
Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter
Reviewed: 4 November, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Performances of the Suite from Sibelius’s “Karelia” music can be lacklustre. It’s early Sibelius, simple and populist, written for Helsinki students fundraising for education projects. Why bother?
Well, in this afternoon concert, Leif Segerstam and the Philharmonia Orchestra bothered. As a result, this straightforward music became resurgent, powerful and gripping. It had fire in its belly and an infectious forward-lunging style. It had incisively prancing cellos and double basses, splendidly mellifluous brass, yearning upper strings and a heartfelt cor anglais solo.
Next, something very strange occurred. The concerto began very gently, lacking its usual darkling, somewhat ominous, Finnish mystery. Almost immediately, Julian Rachlin’s violin reinforced the message – we had slipped towards France, many hundreds of miles further south; we were listening to an inoffensive ‘poème de la nuit’, perhaps by Chausson.
We owe this mood to Rachlin. He is a very fine musician, with a quietly poetic style – miniaturist rather than passionate, lyrical rather than forceful, exact rather than daring. His expressions of passionate intensity are rather clinical. Gentle melancholy is his home-ground.
How different from Segerstam! His forte is the exuberant climax! However, consummate musician that he is, he took his responsibilities seriously. His accompaniment to Rachlin was a model of restraint. He was as if riding, most demurely, a horse whose potential for striding, leaping energy one could sense but was not allowed to see (not even during the tuttis). Had he given the outer movements their full, brazen due, he would have discredited Rachlin’s musicianship by pointing up a crude contrast of opposing styles. The slow movement worked best; all concerned produced melody and melancholy that flowed affectingly, neither stentorian nor maudlin.
Then, oh then, there followed a truly great performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. It should have been recorded!
With pride, Segerstam and the Philharmonia demonstrated that Tchaikovsky was the giant … that both Stravinsky and Shostakovich were right to pay him homage. The performance honoured Tchaikovsky as a musical genius. Lasers had burned off the accretions of mawkish legend – much of it from the West. There was no sense of luxuriating effetely in masochism, of wallowing in the notion of unrelentingly malignant ‘Fate’. There was no sense of Tchaikovsky being a ‘basket-case’, a textbook neurotic, ripe for being further screwed-up by Freud.
Instead, we sensed a man of shining, pristine energy, alert to life in all its variety, cognisant of humanity in all its differing emotions. The carefully gradated symphony comprised stages in a progress towards the resplendent, almost-unimaginable triumph of its conclusion. By the end of the performance, we could see that. We could see that a musical intellect had been at work, moving along astutely and with refinement.
Segerstam and the Philharmonia excelled in vigour and spontaneity, in meticulous respect for sound, timbre and phrase. Each section of the music sounded charmed, the playing both considered and inspired. There was a palpable sense of occasion. Each instrumentalist contributed a particular resonance; it was as though we had never so freshly heard the flute, clarinet and bassoon passages in the slow movement. Had we ever heard the strings being so softly yet authoritatively plucked in the scherzo? The Philharmonia played gloriously, with such volume and praise – and particularly the brass, which exceeded previous climaxes so blazingly, with sounds still so rounded.