Overture Leonore No.3
Violin Concerto, Op.14
James Ehnes (violin)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter
Reviewed: 25 July, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
This was essentially Marin Alsop’s evening. Hailing from the distinguished pedigree of New York, Yale and the Juilliard School, she makes a determined and vigorous conductor. She has clearly won the enthusiastic respect of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra during her tenure as Principal Conductor (and including some formidable recordings for Naxos). She also, as in this Prom, energetically promotes American music.
She impresses her stamp on the music she performs. Her strengths lie in attack, shape and orchestral colour.
Overture Leonore No.3 is essentially a tone poem, powerfully expressing the drama of “Fidelio” in sonata form. The opening was riveting. With great care, well rehearsed, the orchestra built up sustained suspense and the sense of fire ready to burst into flame. The tension and anticipation was as charged and theatrical as in any opera house. I found the middle section of the overture rather too brisk; the playing excited, but Alsop lost the momentum of drama – until the final, splendid climax.
The American pieces were given their UK premieres at the Proms, the Barber in 1944 and the Copland in 1956.
Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto was written in his youth, soon after the Adagio for Strings. It begins in flowing, ruminative melancholy; a more intense pensiveness follows. Thus, in the first two movements, the violin is meditative. James Ehnes launched coolly into such Romantic depressiveness with authority, panache and detached sensitivity. Alsop conducted these sections reticently, in sympathy. Louder sections for full orchestra blazoned through a somewhat hesitant almost-modernity. The brief, spectacular last movement was thrilling – an epitome of ‘presto’, written for a virtuoso to dash off with insouciance. In this, as elsewhere, James Ehnes impressed. He is an astounding violinist whose emotional sensitivity is, at present, a little anonymous.
Copland Third Symphony was the high spot of the evening. The music, I surmised, suited Alsop better than the Barber. Barber’s writing has mood but meanders, whereas Copland’s has assured shape, colour and vitality. Alsop handled the sprawling first movement impeccably. The two great climaxes blazed gloriously, the various woodwinds were delicately and effectively pointed during their spare, chamber-like spots. The timpani, throughout, had a party – through which we heard the tinkling of celesta, piano, harps, piccolo and much else beside.
The style of playing was grandly American. The music is populist but there was no sense of it yelling out its American-ness truculently from the other side of the Atlantic. Particularly in Alsop’s hands, I simply felt I was listening to a master of composition. The last movement, resplendently, made the point. The brass, once more, came to the fore – re-visiting Fanfare for the Common Man with authority and bravura, bringing the symphony to a resounding conclusion. It is a little too long, maybe. Nevertheless, Copland Third is a resounding and substantial work, utterly deserving of its splendidly played arrival at the British Proms.