Prom 56: 1st September 2001

Suite No.1
Violin Concerto in A minor
Symphony No.1 in B flat major (Spring)

Sarah Chang (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kurt Masur

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 1 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A well-balanced concert of Central European music – Germanic and Slavonic with a heavy flavouring of gypsy and folk elements. While their countrymen contested a historic sporting battle on the football field, the rapport between the LPO and Kurt Masur was, rather, an exemplary instance of Anglo-German co-operation; the neat, committed playing of the LPO ideal for music overtly Romantic but never de trop, given direction and character from the tradition of its principal conductor.

Enescu’s First Suite is little heard, neo-Baroque and not immediately winning. It is certainly most remarkable for the opening ’Prelude in unison’, a sweeping, continuous violin melody. Masur brought out well the unexpected mid-point timpani entry; he was less successful in sustaining interest through the immensely long emotional paragraphs. Of the other movements, the ’Minuet’ was the most successful – late Romantic with a defined rhythmic pulse. The following ’Intermezzo’ retained this sense of forward movement; in the vigorous folk-dance finale there was less evidence of shape and control.

Sarah Chang’s performance of the Dvorak was fluent, powerful and impressive. The Concerto’s flowing, discursive nature requires persuasive advocacy – the listener needs to reflect on the many incidental beauties of the first two movements. From her first entry Chang – no relation! – held the attention with her interpretative sureness, moving effortlessly between virtuosity and lyrical expressiveness. Instead of questioning the work’s coherence, one was led by the soloist’s self-belief into anticipating the next attractive episode, the next moment of enchantment.

Masur quickly found an ideal balance between violin and orchestra, no mean feat in the Albert Hall’s remote acoustic; the concerto benefited from the chamber-like textures he produced. The solo bridge-passage into the slow movement was magical, the stage perfectly set for the solo meditation of the ’Largo’, in which there were fine duets with orchestral instruments, notably the flute of Celia Chambers (who was outstanding throughout); the woodwind section is one of the LPO’s strengths.

The finale had authority, soloist and orchestra feeding off the energy and spring of the principal theme. Even if the fastest and most taxing figurations, effortlessly delivered though they were, could not quite deliver their full impact in this hall, Chang conveyed the movement’s invention, brio and exuberance. In the subsidiary dance themes her playing was playful and passionate, which made a powerful case for a work that has never stood particularly high in the repertoire.

In Schumann’s ’Spring Symphony’, Masur was truly on home territory. The shaping of the slow introduction and the seamless lead-in to the ’Allegro’ immediately displayed his absolute rightness and conviction. Masur favoured clear, transparent textures that belied the myths of Schumann’s muddy orchestrations. Masur conjured a wide palette of colours in the first movement, from heroic Romanticism of the opening to the Mozartian delicacy with which he presented the woodwind-dominated second subject. There may have been a disconcerting change of gear at the end of the repeated exposition, but this was redeemed by a more organic and successful transition out of the development, and by a constant awareness of symphonic structure.

The slow movement was all too brief: Masur again exposed a filigree-like texture without sacrificing emotional depth; the movement ended with brass ripeness (marred only by some technical insecurity) that was positively Wagnerian. The scherzo was exactness in its attack; the lucidity of Masur’s interpretation displayed the kinship between Schumann’s orchestral writing and the pianism from which all his invention sprang; a relationship made explicit in the finale, which uses a theme from Kreisleriana.

Perhaps Masur’s forward motion sacrificed a degree of emotional contrast between the scherzo and the two trios; this approach worked well in the finale, giving full rein to it as a stirring set-piece. An orchestration of Dinicu’s Hora Staccato (made famous by Heifetz) was the unexpected but congruous encore.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Friday, 7 September, at 2 o’clock

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