Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Symphony No.4 in D minor, Op.120 [Revised Version, 1851]
Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers
Reviewed: 22 May, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
This was a very well attended concert even though the Schumann symphony is, sadly, usually no great draw; nor is the 21-year-old Tamsin Waley-Cohen who, though having won quite a few international awards, a not a well-known name. By contrast, José Serebrier, “discovered” by George Szell, is a formidable figure and was Leopold Stokowski’s assistant at the American Symphony Orchestra, Stokowski hailing him as “the greatest master of orchestral balance”. Here, Serebrier did try hard but the Royal Philharmonic’s playing scuttled a lot of his attempts at generating the effects he wanted.
Beethoven’s overture, part of his incidental music for Goethe’s “Egmont”, is a violent and passionate work. Goethe’s play is about the Flemish Count Egmont’s fight against the despotic Spanish Duke of Alba, a theme Beethoven returned to many times: the heroic exaltation of a man condemned to death for having taken a stand against oppression. The opening brass-playing was powerful but not as overwhelming as desired. Serebrier seemed more interested in keeping the lid on the piece and exploring its texture and details, which worked well, despite the squawking brass spoiling the closing passages.
Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, written in the wake of his disastrous marriage, was judged so difficult by its dedicatee Leopold Auer that he refused to perform it and he even tried to prevent others from tackling it! It is virtuoso in places, requiring double and triple stopping, but it is also, in the slow movement, incredibly tender and this requires, if it is to be convincing, maturity. Tamsin Waley-Cohen got through the work without any major upset, but how she got there left one rather indifferent.
Mischa Elman (who auditioned for Auer at the age of 11) recorded this work in 1929. What makes this a truly superb interpretation is the way in which Elman surprises the listener: daring use of rubato and a lead-in to the first appearance of the opening movement’s orchestral climax that is unexpected, as though he is taking the listener on a journey of discovery. Whilst not expecting Waley-Cohen to ape Elman, her performance was nervous and unsure and offered too little in the way of characterisation other than variations in dynamic and the odd long pause.
The slow movement was uneasy, though Serebrier was very sympathetic and adaptable, able to shape the orchestra here very effectively. The finale mined the same shallow vein. What is not in doubt is Waley-Cohen’s potential.
Schumann’s Fourth Symphony was a pleasure to listen to. With an instinct for the feel of the whole, Serebrier moulded individual passages, thus presenting an integrated vision that was architecturally secure. With much cleaner sounds from the brass and well-taken solos, everything was on course for a triumphant conclusion, which is exactly what happened.