Prom 54: 31st August 2001

Violin Concerto in D minor
Symphony No.4 in G

Leonidas Kavakos (violin)
Ruth Ziesak (soprano)

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Herbert Blomstedt

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 31 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

For the second of their two concerts, Herbert Blomstedt and his Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra paired two works, by Sibelius and Mahler. In 1907 these composers had met in Helsinki where Mahler was conducting; on long walks they discussed the nature of the symphony – agreeing to disagree on what they each considered was the genre’s main purpose. Sibelius argued for taut inner logic (as he would display in his Seventh Symphony) while Mahler thought the symphony should encompass the whole world. (I have often thought that Sibelius 7 and Mahler 7 would make a great concert pairing, with Simon Rattle perhaps.)

Here, though, instead of a Sibelius symphony we had his popular Violin Concerto, in the assured hands of Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos. He is best known for recording the original version of the work with the year-later revision (BIS-CD-500 with the estimable partnership of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä).

Playing the ’Falmouth’ Stradivarius dating from 1692, Kavakos looks like a giant, rather stiff bear (although, with his jet-black hair and moustache, not the polar bears Tovey thought were doing a polka in the final movement). He produces an almost effortless tone, which was a shade strained in the upper register. (I wondered if there might be the slightest pitch discrepancy, the orchestra – being German – probably choosing A=444 rather than the more accepted pitch of A=440). Blomstedt can claim Swedish blood (although he was born in the USA), and alongside his acclaimed Nielsen he also conducts much Sibelius. Although not quite as idiomatic as Vänskä, Blomstedt shaped the orchestral accompaniment with watchful diligence.

The distinctive Leipzig sound – characterful woodwind and silky strings – is enhanced by Blomstedt’s favoured orchestral layout: antiphonal violins with cellos next to the first violins, basses behind. This affords a continually fresh aural perspective – in the opening of Dvoøák’s ’New World’ Symphony (the night before), which organically grew from the inside, starting as it does on low strings, before rippling outwards. If Mahler’s Fourth Symphony has few moments like that, this was a beautifully crafted performance of the sunniest of the Bohemian’s symphonies, in which he is perhaps less interested in encompassing the whole world; although he includes Heaven in the final movement, setting a ’Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ poem of a child’s view of paradise.

This child was something of a tomboy. Ruth Ziesak, in a devilishly red dress and wrap, was the almost petulant soloist, self-assured and robust as some children can be, not the silky purity of, say, Barbara Bonney. But then the childish glee at the meal being prepared (St Martha as the cook), with the consequent slaughter of livestock, is not Heaven as viewed through rose-coloured spectacles! This was the second time London has heard Ziesak in Mahler with a great European orchestra – in February 1998 she appeared with the Vienna Philharmonic and Riccardo Muti. Here, Blomstedt’s care compared favourably with Muti’s stiffness (the Italian is not a natural Mahlerian).

There was a smattering of applause when Ziesak arrived on stage after the second movement, which broke concentration (as does letting in latecomers mid-work, and between-movement and too-early applause – Music Editor). I wish other conductors would ’solve’ this entry problem in the way that Mark Elder did with the CBSO at the Proms in 1993, when Amanda Roocroft entered through the orchestra during the third movement’s climax.

No time for encores – a late-evening Prom beckoned – but Blomstedt and his Leipzigers provided two of the most enjoyable concerts so far this season: they should become a regular feature. Blomstedt was making his belated Proms debut at 74. It is a great shame he never came with the San Francisco Symphony – the Proms guide’s claim last year that Tilson Thomas has galvanised that Orchestra into an ensemble of international standing was as preposterous a value judgement as it is plainly incorrect. Not only Blomstedt, earlier stints with Ozawa and Edo de Waart eloquently testify the reverse. Now the Proms can make amends by inviting Blomstedt and the Gewandhaus Orchestra for a speedy return.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Thursday, 6 September, at 2.05pm

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