An Evening of Passacaglias

Passacaglia, Op.1
Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.77 (Op.99)
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98

Leila Josefowicz (violin)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 26 July, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

In its only visit to this year’s Proms, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its Music Director, Sakari Oramo, considered the passacaglia, which as a form dates back to the seventeenth century with JS Bach as major exponent of the style. Indeed, two of the compositions included here draw from Bach’s music. Webern’s Passacaglia is in D minor, the key of Bach’s Chaconne for unaccompanied violin (and so admired by Schoenberg and his followers) and the finale of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony is derived from Cantata 150.

Webern’s considered his Passacaglia, although far from being his ‘opus 1’, as being a “graduation piece” after four years as a pupil of Schoenberg. The work is very approachable and quite at odds with his later music, a highly chromatic harmonic canvas that can lead the unwary to loose their way. Such was this performance – significant melodic phrases were underplayed and with little sense of direction throughout the piece’s 11-minute duration. With the exception of the pizzicato opening, which was shattered by the coughing and sneezing of the audience, the orchestra was often too loud making the meticulous dynamic contrasts clearly marked in the score difficult to perceive.

Shostakovich’s Violin concerto No.1 dates from a particularly troublesome time in the composer’s life. Every aspect of Shostakovich’s music was being dissected by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and he, like his colleagues, were castigated for “formalist distortions and anti-democratic tendencies”. Despite this the concerto appears unaffected by the affront. The work remained unperformed until 1955 (having been completed in 1948), two-and-a-half-years after Stalin’s death, when it was premiered by David Oistrakh for whom it was written.

The restrained tones of Canadian Leila Josefowicz made for a thought-provoking performance even if the extraordinary acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall meant the accompaniment came close to swamping her in the first movement only to achieve it in the second, the pyrotechnics of which were executed with adroitness while the cadenza at the end of the third (passacaglia) movement was tackled with single-minded aplomb. Unfortunately audience noise (including a mobile phone) once again shattered the magic, and the finale once again had occasional problems of balance. Josefowicz is no stranger to performing this work with the CBSO and Oramo; she has recorded it with them on the Warner Classics label, yet while the fiery conclusion brought a spectacular end, the performance as a whole achieved much less than is usually delivered by this combination of performers.

In 1860 Brahms made a public declaration in opposition to the music of Liszt whose music he considered too programmatic and at odds with his own devotion to the notion of ‘pure’ music. This notion seems to have eluded Oramo who did everything in his power to ‘improve’ what is essentially a classical symphony. The opening two-note violin motif appeared disjointed and there was little evidence of any direction right up to the end of the exposition. By contrast the second movement opened simply and was well thought out, though the unmarked changes of tempo that Oramo considered necessary added little. The second subject cello melody was played much more sotto voce than usual bringing to the fore counter-melodies that are often missed.

Less than convinced I was forced to readdress my thoughts with a stunningly energetic third movement that hit all the right points in terms of tempo, balance and insight. From here on the CBSO moved its game up a notch; the finale had energy and passion and included an imploring flute solo (in Variation XII) from Marie-Christine Zupancic.

This was the first of two Proms on this evening – made evident by the early start and strict avoidance of any encore – much to the disappointment of the three-quarter-full auditorium. While the Hall’s air conditioning made a welcome respite from the stifling heat, the music-making itself appeared somewhat tired.

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