Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26
Symphony No.10 in E minor, Op.93
Joshua Bell (violin)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: 7 September, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto is the work by which the composer is remembered, in spite of a corpus that includes two other violin concertos, several concertante works for violin (including the Scottish Fantasy), three symphonies, three operas and much else besides.
It is, of course, a ‘staple’ in the repertoire of virtuoso violinists. Joshua Bell gave a performance of enviable polish and poise and yet, allied with Daniele Gatti, failed to project the expressive potential of this piece. Some sour intonation and fallible ensemble from the orchestra at the start did not faze Bell from delivering the opening phrases in an engaging way and, indeed, when the first movement got underway, there was a good sense of interaction between soloist and accompaniment.
But there was very little feeling of engagement with the substance of the music itself. One sensed a soloist providing a well-honed and, it must be said, technically irreproachable performance, with a compliant orchestra and conductor in attendance. To be sure, Gatti encouraged the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to deliver tempestuous climaxes, but it all sounded strangely perfunctory and with little purpose. Conductor and orchestra dutifully accommodated some wayward rubato from the soloist.
As for the slow movement with its memorable main melody, the performers again failed to ignite the emotions inherent in the score. There was some beautiful playing to be heard, but as for a considered and effective realisation of the music, this listener, at least, was disappointed. Come the finale, violin pyrotechnics were evident, though the orchestral response was decidedly perfunctory. I hesitate to suggest that the performers were on ‘auto-pilot’, but I didn’t sense that Bruch’s score was being performed in anything other than a merely dutiful manner.
By turns sugary, soupy and flashy, Bell offered an extract from John Corigliano’s music for the film “The Red Violin” as an unaccompanied encore.
Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, written in the wake of Stalin’s death, is a piece which contains within its taut symphonic structure a whole gamut of emotions; indeed it must be one of the most overtly ‘programmatic’ of symphonies which does not have a subtitle.
However, during this performance I wondered whether I was hearing a posthumously discovered (or long suppressed) composition by Shostakovich entitled ‘Concerto for Orchestra’, since very little of the raw nerves or poignant expression of this symphony was exposed. Perfectly manicured string phrasing at the start was played at well below the ‘Moderato’ marking, and several bars’ rest were longer than the notated duration.
It all felt alarmingly ‘comfortable’, a clarinet solo was elegantly shaped but contained no hint of the disquiet which is to come, and whilst not underplayed, the climaxes did not convey the air of menace they should – though Gatti’s grunts were audible from the back row of the Stalls. However, the two piccolos in the first movement’s coda sent a chill through the air.
As for the second movement scherzo, which has been described as ‘a musical portrait of Stalin’, this was dispatched at a very high speed – more Presto’ than the designated Allegro. As a consequence, the ‘off-beat’ chords could not be articulated properly; furthermore, one sensed a depiction (if it is one) of Stalin in high spirits rather than being, to quote David Fanning in his programme note, a “four-minute outpouring of venom”. Geniality pervaded the third movement, as opposed to a feeling of unease and disquiet, though one could admire some expressive woodwinds and the solo horn.
Oddly enough, the start of the last movement was most effectively realised. This is elusive music, with meandering solo woodwinds pitted against ambiguous string harmonies, and both playing and conducting were apposite. Once the ‘allegro’ started, however, we were back to mere display, and when the second movement music was recalled, similar problems of cohesion with the ‘off-beat’ chords were encountered. The mammoth statement of ‘DSCH’ (the composer’s musical motto) was not the heart-stopping happening it should be, and was answered by sentimental string phrases – as opposed to the ‘semplice’ (simply) direction given in the score. The final moments became an opportunity for mere virtuosity and, again, ensemble was compromised – at one point threatening security.
Apart from these occasional instances of precarious ensemble, the Royal Philharmonic played with commendable cohesion, yet this was a threat-free and terror-free Tenth. As such, it was miles away from the real spirit of Shostakovich’s symphony.