The Wasps Overture
Violin Concerto in D, Op.15
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36
Maxim Vengerov (violin)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: 25 May, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
It was instantly clear, right at the start of Vaughan Williams’s overture, that Charles Dutoit had impressed his authority on the RPO, and that it was accordingly responsive. Unison and accented notes were delivered with razor-sharp clarity and unanimity of attack, and the insect sounds, illustrated by immaculately executed crescendos, diminuendos and tremolos, were extremely evocative. Thereafter, the various themes, which tumble out in this inventive piece, were all strongly characterised, and their contrapuntal intertwining demonstrated that a careful ear for detail and balance was at work. This was a fleet-footed approach to the score – no bad thing – which ensured that there was not an unnecessarily bloated feel to the sound, which many seem to consider a pre-requisite in the performance of English music.
Maxim Vengerov’s interpretation of Britten’s Violin Concerto has been widely disseminated by EMI’s recording, with the LSO under Rostropovich. On this occasion, under the less volatile direction of Charles Dutoit, the result was not terribly convincing. Britten’s concerto is not a conventional display piece – though to be sure there are many technical challenges – and in the outer movements, a reflective, soulful approach is required. Vengerov did not seem quite at home with this as with the pyrotechnics of the Vivace central movement. The basic pulse of the first movement was too slow, certainly Moderato, but not ‘con moto’, as marked, so the delivery of the opening theme did not flow as it should. A simple, natural expression was supplanted by something more manicured and so less heartfelt, and when the main melody returns ravishingly on full strings, the orchestra was too restrained, and the violin’s rhythmic counterpoint too much to the fore.
But the orchestral interjections, with their Prokofiev-tinged inflections had bite and weight and there was a good sense of interplay between the various sections of the orchestra, with the piquant woodwind being especially praiseworthy. Unfortunately – and inexcusably – a pause was inserted between the first and second movements, quite contrary to the composer’s request for attacca and the requirement that the two follow without a break. This allowed those that must cough to have full reign and, more annoying still, unwarranted and unwanted applause to break out.
But the second movement itself was stunning, with whiplash accents and sforzando interjections making this music sound much angrier than it often does. Vengerov seemed on surer territory in virtuoso demands, though there were some momentary imprecision of ensemble. Dutoit built a climax of quite frightening power just before the cadenza, which Vengerov dispatched with predictable style, if without finding all of the meaning in some of the more reflective moments. The finale was purposeful and not without drama. This movement can sometimes ‘hang fire’ rather, but even though a little more momentum would not have come amiss – as in the first movement – the weight of the orchestral sonority was impressive, and Vengerov’s final musings were aptly thoughtful.
It was perverse programming to then have Ravel’s Tzigane following immediately after the pensive conclusion of the Britten. Indeed, some thought that the interval had arrived. In any event, one of Ravel’s most uncharacteristic pieces – to the extent that he rarely allowed virtuosity for its own sake – was given a performance of some cut and thrust, right from the start when Vengerov launched the opening extended solo with no little gypsy-like fervour. There is, though, more subtlety in this piece than was revealed on this occasion. An encore – Antonio Bazzini’s La ronde des lutins – was then given in an orchestral garb (the original is for piano), and Maxim Vengerov’s showmanship was finally let off the leash entirely. He loved every second. Such pure display is quite wearying after a short time, but there was no doubting Vengerov’s conviction, although one muses that he revels more in purely technical challenges of musically insubstantial items than in penetrating the meatier material of Britten’s concerto.
I was thoroughly impressed with Dutoit’s reading of Enigma Variations, which had no trace of the cobwebs that can surround interpretations of this quintessentially English – and Elgarian – work. During rehearsals for his now notorious and provocative (though endlessly fascinating) performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein quipped that the Intermezzo (Variation 10 – Dorabella) was “Tchaikovsky ballet music”. Whilst Dutoit’s view of Enigma was poles apart from Bernstein’s, there was, nevertheless, a graceful quality about the interpretation and playing which was most attractive. With light, airy textures – not heavy, soggy strings, the winds uttered some delightful phrases in several of the variations and, indeed, Dorabella.
The more melancholy Elgar was delivered without undue emoting, and Dutoit succeeded in the well-nigh impossible task of making ‘Nimrod’ sound non-hackneyed, even if it started too loud – some way above the ppp marking, and more of an andante than the written Adagio. The boisterous variations were given with healthy vigour and splendid attack. The two variations before the finale were especially well done, with an inward, elegiac quality, and the clarinet musings quoting (or not) from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (it may actually be Schumann’s Piano Concerto) seemed to come from a distant, lonely place. The last variation (a self-portrait of the composer) was full of rumbustious swagger, the Pomp and Circumstance element kept at bay, but with weighty climaxes and a final peroration – not too fast – strengthened by a sonorous organ contribution.