Prom 60: Fast, Loud and Not All There

Violin Concerto in D
Symphony No.1 in B flat minor

James Ehnes (violin)

BBC National Orchestra of WalesRichard Hickox

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 4 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The idea of a concerto can be difficult to pin down accurately. Leonard Bernstein introduced his famous – infamous? – performance of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with Glenn Gould with the question “Who’s the boss in a Concerto?” On that occasion it was due to a divergence of view between soloist and conductor on the matter of interpretation – particularly as regards tempi. Another thought which springs to mind is whether or not a particular concerto is a mere display piece for a virtuoso player (e.g. Paganini) or whether there are other more weighty musical considerations at work.

I do believe that Brahms’s Violin Concerto falls into the latter category. His use of themes and their development is every bit as thought-through as it is in his symphonies. It follows, then, that the soloist is not just a decorative addition to the proceedings, but an integral part of the working-out of the musical argument. The concerto begins as if it were a symphony – in the same key and mood, indeed, as Brahms’s Second Symphony. Hickox presented the opening cogently, with a good sense of ebb and flow. The important dotted-note theme, however, was rather lumpy and this somewhat leaden approach impeded smooth transitions throughout.

James Ehnes, it almost goes without saying is a talented player and, technically speaking, his playing was virtually flawless. But on the evidence of this performance, he does not yet command the necessary weight or gravitas with are needed for a full realisation of Brahms’s concerto. His first entry was quite light and soft-grained – contrary to the forte marking in the score – but he gradually gained in confidence. Arpeggios and scalic passages were dispatched effectively, but lyrical lines were less-well projected. Indeed his tone seemed somewhat lightweight to make the fullest impression in the RAH’s generous acoustic.

During this first movement, there was good interplay and cohesion between soloist and orchestra. The lead into the coda following the cadenza (thrillingly dispatched) was very well handled. The slow movement begins with one of the most beautiful melodies which Brahms ever penned, played first on the oboe and then taken up by the soloist. Enjoyment was marred on this occasion by mannered phrasing and sour wind intonation. The accompaniment was on the heavy side – a much gentler approach was really needed to provide the poise andtranquillity inherent in this music. Brahms’s qualifying marking for the finale – (’ma non troppo vivace’) – was set aside for a straight ’Allegro’ which, whilst providing an opportunity for virtuosic display, was too rapid for all the details of Brahms’s scoring to register. Accented notes from both soloist and orchestra were played for all they were worth and felt exaggerated. The danger of ignoring Brahms’s initial marking was that it left little or no room for the increase in tempo required for the end of the movement which, nevertheless, concluded with panache. I should like to hear James Ehnes play this work again in about ten years’ time when his undoubted technical gifts have been enhanced withgreater musical insights.

This performance of Walton’s First Symphony could be summarily described as ’fast and loud’. The first movement has any number of shattering climaxes, but the positioning of the heavy brass above and behind the remainder of the orchestra ensured that the balance was askew at these key moments.

Hickox played the first movement at a terrific pace – Walton indicates ’Allegro assai’ – and the result was undeniably exciting, with twitchy, nervy string rhythms and baying horns to the fore. But exhilarating as it was, there was a lack of repose in the few calmer moments, and the heavy climaxes all sounded pretty much the same, whereas Walton’s markings suggest otherwise. Having been so fast in the first movement, this left very little in reserve for what should be an even faster ’Scherzo’. The swift tempo adopted did not enable the unusual indication ’con malizia’ (with malice) to register as it should. I think the main problem was that there had been too much ’malizia’ and not enough weight in the first movement. But the orchestra responded with collective virtuosity – rasping trombones and explosive timpani almost made one flinch.

The third movement lacked the required restraint and poignancy to provide a much needed contrast to what precedes and follows it, although the limpid solo flute at the beginning and at the end had the requisite plaintive quality.In the ’Finale’, the big guns were blazing again and Hickox was once more fast and furious leading to an overwhelming climax with the arrival of the percussion. In the very final bars, however, it was a pity that the very short notes Walton wrote were elongated. A shame, too, about the side drum rim-shots which are not prescribed by the composer.

This was, overall, an exhausting and forceful performance, undeniably impressive on its own terms. Not the way one would always like to encounter the work, but an astonishing reminder of Walton’s genius in creating a unique orchestral sound with an orchestra no larger (save for an extra trumpet and a tuba) than that required for Beethoven’s Ninth.

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