Turning Point [UK premiere]
Violin Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.63
Symphony No.11 in G minor, Op.103 (The Year 1905)
Daniel Hope (violin)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Reviewed by: Andrew Morris
Reviewed: 29 July, 2013
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Although completed in 2006, Colin Matthews’s Turning Point (written for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) has had a long wait for a British premiere. It’s a substantial work in a 20-minute single span that moves from bubbling energy to a cool and sombre low. Somewhere at the heart of the piece is the titular point of turning and, according to the composer, the title only came to him when the piece was largely complete. Beneath the frantic activity that characterises its opening stretch is a solid bass line, underpinning the furious and virtuosic gestures that dominate the music – and played here with considerable skill by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Strong hints of late Mahler touch the piece’s drawn-out conclusion – after all, Matthews is an authority on the great man’s music and his work with his brother David and Deryck Cooke on the sketches of the Tenth Symphony seem an inspiration for the sustained writing for strings. If that slow winding down of the musical process lacked anything, it was a sense of gravity, partly in the performance but mostly in the orchestration.
Daniel Hope’s rendition of Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto was more problematic. Thomas Søndergård had trouble keeping up with Hope’s rapid changes of tempo and orchestra and soloist all too frequently drifted apart. Hope drove the solo part with grit and focus, but his playing verged often on the ugly and approximate. Moments such as the first movement’s tender second theme and the carefree melody of the slow movement were exceptions that dug deep into the expressive core of Prokofiev’s tormented score, but too much of the rapid passagework of the outer movements was simply unpleasant.
This lack of coordination left me wondering how much rehearsal time the concerto had received. BBCNOW’s performance of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony was so spectacularly well-drilled that there was little doubt that much time and effort had been invested into it. From the glassy string-writing at the Symphony’s beginning to the percussive clamour of its conclusion, the standard of playing was thrillingly high and Søndergård’s conducting was flowing and involving. This remains a controversial entry in Shostakovich’s symphonic canon, attracting ardent support and outright dismissal in equal measure. So it was when the piece was first performed in 1957: many were disappointed at Shostakovich’s apparently straightforward celebration of the efforts of those who fought the Tsar’s forces in the failed 1905 Revolution (the piece makes great use of revolutionary songs, which would have been familiar to its Soviet audiences). Others, though, noted the ambivalent tone of much of the music and Shostakovich himself is said to have noted the piece’s proximity to the Soviet crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising.
Søndergård’s tempos were swift (markedly different to those of Mstislav Rostropovich, a keen champion of the work). The revolutionary canvas lacked some of the atmosphere that the work can harbour, particularly in the opening movement, and it was a little short on descriptive excitement, but the playing and the cumulative energy generated left little doubt as to the seriousness of Shostakovich’s intentions.