Paria – Overture
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
Kuba Jakowicz (violin)
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 21 November, 2011
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
Not all orchestras from Central and Eastern Europe have made a point of featuring music from their country, but the Warsaw Philharmonic did just that in the generous programme it is touring across the UK – so giving notice of an ensemble fast regaining the eminence it has enjoyed over much of its 110-year existence.
It made sense to include a piece by Andrzej Panufnik, not least as a reminder that his music has had precious few performances in his adopted country during the two decades since his death. Sinfonia Rustica (1948 – the composer titled instead of numbering his symphonies, this being the first in lieu of two earlier such works destroyed during the Second World War) is among the most significant works he wrote during his fraught six-year relationship with the Communist authorities: one, moreover, whose initial acclaim was quickly forgotten once it had fallen foul of Socialist Realist dictates. Today it is hard to hear this music inspired by Polish folk-art as anything other than a deft accommodation between past and present – the string orchestras stereophonically divided so that their antiphonal exchanges throw the woodwind and brass into greater relief. Most often given by chamber forces, there is no reason why a full body of strings cannot be used and Antoni Wit made the most of this in an account highlighting the alternate energy and plangent qualities of its first movement, then the capriciousness and expressive ambivalence of those which follow. Perhaps the finale could have had a greater incisiveness in its latter stages, though the sheer conclusiveness of the final bars was never in doubt.
The Panufnik was preceded by the Overture to Paria (1869), among the most ambitious of Stanisław Moniuszko’s fourteen operas but whose limited success failed to reinforce his standing as the most high-profile Polish composer from the mid-nineteenth-century. A pity – as the piece has all the dynamism and expressive poise, allied to a formal solidity and a melodic appeal, expected of an opera-overture from this period; the Warsaw musicians giving the music its head in a performance which confirmed its creator as worthy of more than his footnote in musical history, as well as reminding just how effective such an overture can be when opening a concert.
Standard fare comprised the rest of the programme. It is always a pleasure to hear Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto in so responsive a performance as this – Kuba Jakowicz bringing elegance as well as panache to a first movement which was less of a prelude than is often the case, then deploying his expressive but never cloying tone to advantage in an Adagio whose formal ingenuity was at least as evident as its melodic immediacy on the way to a rapturous climax. Nor did the finale disappoint, with Wit ensuring a rhythmic élan such as sustained the animated interplay between soloist and orchestra through to a no-nonsense though exhilarating close.
It must be difficult to bring a fresh perspective to bear on a work such as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and Wit wisely refrained from doing so. That said, there was little to fault in a reading which, once one accepted the honest and unfailingly middle-of-the-road approach, readily underlined exactly why this piece should have played a seminal role in Western music. The first two movements were respectively rugged and ruminative, the scherzo setting up just the right degree of expectancy going into a finale (no exposition repeat) as pointed up the composer’s audacity not only in attempting such a movement but also in bringing it off with such flair.
A fine rounding-off to an unfailingly pleasurable concert, the Warsaw Philharmonic having enough in reserve for an energetic rendition of Brahms’s Fifth Hungarian Dance (heard in Schmelling’s orchestration) followed by the ‘Gavotte’ from Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony – ending the evening on a delightfully understated note.