Prom 40: 20th August 2001 – Schoenberg Premiere

Photograph of Joseph Swensen by Colin Dickson

Violin Concerto, Op.36
Notturno for violin and strings (UK premiere)
Symphony No. 4 in E minor

Ernst Kovacic (violin)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Joseph Swensen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Programme-wise, this was the most revealing concert so far this season. The three main works all represent the ’symphonic tradition’ at its most recreative and uncompromising, even though only one is designated a symphony as such.

Well one-and-a-half perhaps. Dating from 1888, Mahler’s Todtenfeier is essentially the first movement of his Second Symphony (the ’Resurrection’) in draft form. Whether or not Mahler planned it as a stand-alone work, its symphonic potency must have been immediately evident, making its continuation a problem that occupied the composer for some six years. Formally, the differences are most apparent in the lead-up to the vast developmental climax, where two short passages impede the momentum and were rightly excised. Texturally, there were many changes, from re-voicing solo lines to an overall clarification of the orchestral tissue, stratifying its layers in a manner that was Mahler’s alone. Not, in short, an addition to the Mahler canon, but of more than academic interest, and worth occasional revival – especially when as trenchantly performed as here.

Had Schoenberg called his Violin Concerto a symphony for violin and orchestra (as Britten was to do with his much less symphonic Cello Symphony), it’s unlikely few people, at whatever level of critical appraisal, would have dissented. Completed in the United States in 1936, this is an all-encompassing statement of aesthetic conviction and expressive power, with a violin technique to match – virtuosic but not virtuoso. Part of the work’s fascination is the way in which the soloist carries the melodic substance, with the orchestra an ever-changing context of commentary and elaboration. In the lineage of Beethoven and Brahms then, and it needs playing as such.

However many times Ernst Kovacic has performed the concerto, his dexterity and security of intonation in even the most exposed passagework, and identification with the uniquely Schoenbergian ethos of discipline and vulnerability, made this an account to savour. Joseph Swensen got excellent results from his Welsh forces, making them a true ensemble of equals, and sustaining the momentum of Schoenberg’s invention seamlessly across the three movements. A recording would be most welcome, but this performance deserves preservation. How about it, BBC Music Magazine?

The Notturno, probably written in 1896 and only recently brought to light, followed teasingly after the interval. You’d need to have profound insights into the essence of Schoenbergian technique to recognise the composer of the Violin Concerto in this four-minute piece; less a salon miniature as a piece in the style of those ’light’ composers once so popular in German-speaking countries – Robert Fuchs perhaps? Good to hear almost the nearest thing yet to Schoenberg’s ’point zero’.

What Schoenberg did for the concerto, Brahms did less overtly for the symphony. The Fourth was long admired rather than loved and, syntactically at least, it does refine the ’classical’ symphony to a peak of organic self-consistency. Never mind the chaconne that constitutes the finale, all four movements exhibit the process of developing variation at its most dynamic, which intensifies sonata-form rigour through undermining its actual stability. Such architectonic complexity achieved through so streamlined a tonal design was not to be exceeded, and Brahms knew it.

If there’s a main criticism to be levelled at Swensen’s account, it’s that the frequently chamber-like scale compromised the outer movements’ stark gestures. Lucid and purposeful, the music ideally needed greater impact to drive home its fatalistic expression. Yet the second movement was a marvel of restrained passion, and the scherzo had buoyancy without bombast – the triangle part skilfully absorbed into the texture. A few extra desks of strings might have done the trick, but it’s more likely that Swensen needs to add weight to the incisiveness already present in abundance. The outcome could then be formidable. Even so, the symphony brought to an absorbing end a concert of innately radical conservatism.

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