NDR Symphony Orchestra

Le tombeau de Couperin
Violin Concerto in D
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36

Gil Shaham (violin)

NDR Symphony Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

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

The Hamburg-based NDR Symphony Orchestra was formed in the early post-World War II days and has, almost since that time, been an ensemble of real quality and of national importance due to its broadcasting role. In the 1980s Günter Wand became the orchestra’s Chief Conductor and international renown followed suit. Christoph von Dohnányi now holds the position.

Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin was written during the latter years of the First World War as a suite for piano in six movements and ‘in memoriam’ and took the form not only as an homage to his musical predecessors but also as a tribute to his friends that had lost their lives in the conflict. Ravel orchestrated the work in 1919, dropping the ‘Fugue’ and ‘Toccata’. Reduced forces made this performance a delight with deft string playing in the opening Prelude and a sprightly oboe in the vigorous ‘Rigaudon’.

The death of the ballet impresario Diaghilev in 1929 left Stravinsky not only without a dear friend but also without a source of income. The composer, as pianist, had formed a new partnership with violinist Samuel Dushkin (for whom the concerto was written) and although never intended as a ballet, the concerto lends itself to such treatment. Indeed in 1972 Russian-American choreographer, George Balanchine, a close collaborator with Stravinsky for fifty years, designed a ballet to the music of the Violin Concerto. (Balanchine’s ballet is produced by Royal Ballet from 5-16 October 2006.)

In this Proms performance, the NDRSO accompanied well, and there was plenty of affinity between Shaham and Dohnányi; Shaham never struggled to be heard. As an appropriate encore to Stravinsky’s Bach-inspired work, Gil Shaham offered a well-judged ‘Gavotte en rondeau’ from the E major Partita for unaccompanied violin.

A less spectacular second half (the violins now antiphonal) was good in parts. Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony was written in a period of great angst with the composer preparing to marry: a course that was to prove disastrous due to in no small part to his homosexuality. The symphony commences with a forceful ‘fate’ motif on the horns and bassoons admirably performed here with the bells of the horns slightly upturned to ensure a resonant sound. The symphony is a tour de force for the strings and, here, the violins demonstrated themselves well-matched in volume and timbre to the woodwinds and brass.

There were inconsistencies in the performance, however – in the first movement the lead into the clarinet second subject, marked ‘meno mosso’ and ‘ritardando’ was ignored and in fact reversed by the conductor. More tempo problems ensued; the repeated section in the coda that is marked ‘molto più mosso’ was already too fast before it began leading to the strings tumbling, almost out of control.

Well-placed pizzicato strings and an amply expressive oboe melody at the start of the second movement headed downhill with a muffled cello melody far from the ‘grazioso’ marking. By contrast the pizzicato ostinato of the third movement scherzo was nicely rounded, rhythmic and accurate, with careful attention to dynamics; this movement certainly went with a swing and headlong into the finale, a veritable whirlwind of a movement that continues on relentlessly at a break-neck pace for about 200 bars when, suddenly, the tempo is halved and the ‘fate’ motif reappears.

There are differing views as to whether the movement is triumphant or hysterical, though this performance was neither. The driving force towards the ‘fate’ motif here seemed more stumbled upon by accident; in fact, it ought to be head-on collision. When ‘fate’ had reappeared, however, the music became more desperate towards the conclusion.

There is a well-known musical ‘philosophy’ that states that as long as you begin and end together it doesn’t really matter what happens in between. This was the case here as an excited audience wanted more. Another saying is ‘quit while you are ahead’ – sadly the NDR Symphony Orchestra did not. A repeat of any piece from the concert itself leaves the feeling of being cheated, and a ‘second go’ at the symphony’s third movement came a poor second to the ‘original’ performance with a late oboe and intonation problems in the trumpets. It seemed that ‘fate’ was having the last laugh.

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