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S & H Concert Review

Ravel, Brahms, Shostakovich, Kyung-Wha Chung (vln), Philharmonia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit, RFH, 27th February 2003 (MB)

Kyung-Wha Chung, one of the most graceful of violinists, has been absent from British concert halls for too long. However, whether Brahms’ great violin concerto is the ideal vehicle for this sometimes-temperamental player is questionable; throughout her performance one was struck by her less than empathetic approach to the deeper rooted ambivalences of the work.

In part this may be due to the comparative astringency of her tone; even moments such as the pure spun lyricism, played high on the E string, after the first movement cadenza, proved uninvolving with that rapt intensity switched for a more declamatory, harsh percussiveness. And percussiveness was noteworthy throughout the performance – there was a willingness to bow harder against the strings than is required, unfussy double string chords suggesting a technique somewhat struggling to cope with the demands of Brahms’ scoring and a lack of clarity in her articulation at key moments. In part it was a relief to hear a performance which lacked sheer beauty of tone (so often the norm in this work) and, if her playing owed more to Szigeti than Oistrakh, it did have an almost irresistible originality. There were many great individual moments – the depth of sonority she conjured from the G string being one of them, her replicated sweetness following the oboe’s second movement solo – but it remained an earthbound performance of one of the most beautiful of concertos.

Opening the concert was a lugubrious performance of Ravel’s Suite, Ma mère l’oye. Yet, even given the somewhat ponderous tempi, this was a performance which impressed with the beauty of the Philharmonia’s playing, the one constant throughout this concert. Characterful woodwind (and especially the sublime flute solos of Kenneth Smith) couldn’t fail to entice the listener into the shimmering slumber of Ravel’s enchanting, sometimes-oriental sound world. Radiant string tone, melancholic woodwind and magical brass glissandi were epic in making the fairytale all the more believable.

What made this concert utterly unforgettable, however, was a staggering performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony – quite simply the finest performance of the work I have heard in any concert hall, anywhere. The key to its greatness was the magnificent playing of the Philharmonia with every section (notably the brass) excelling themselves in a performance that was as powerful and explosive as it was intense and electrifying. With Dutoit by no means dragging tempi (as he can do latterly) his grip over the symphonic architecture of the work remained absolute (if not totalitarian).

Perhaps the opening ‘cellos and basses didn’t quite have the extraordinary sonority of tone that Mravinsky brought to this work, but listening to the ‘cellos at the opening of the allegretto it was clear that they possessed the power to deliver gritty string playing of coal-black darkness. Moments such as the first movement’s climax and its disintegration into catastrophe brought with it plangent brass – not least from the magnificent tuba player, John Jenkins. Some might have found the brass during the first movement a little too trenchant but given the scope of this performance it was never less than appropriate; this was, after all, a performance which appealed because its anger was determinedly reactionary, almost declaiming this as a work antipathetic to the circumstances under which it was written.

Dutoit’s panoramic view of this symphony reached its apogee in the serenity of the Largo (an exquisite performance, in fact) where sublime high violins were achingly contrasted with the penumbral, dense harmony of the lower strings. Fabulous intonation over-emphasised the purity of Shostakovich’s string writing – during the raging middle section acerbic woodwind punctuated the whistling of the violins and stammering percussion with an unequivocal and mesmeric iciness. Ending in almost incendiary silence the sheer spellbinding beauty the orchestra and conductor unravelled in this movement was not only revelatory, but stunning. If this reviewer hears a performance of this movement which even gets half way to the transparency witnessed here he will be lucky indeed.

Launching straight into the Allegro non troppo, with considerable panache one should add, Dutoit built up the intensity swiftly. Peerless brass tone – with spectacular trombones – laced the movement with the full-girdled sound this symphony deserves, but rarely receives. The coda itself, with string playing of piercing, penetrating power, was almost schismatic. The last bars just blazed like an inferno rounding off a performance of astounding grip and power.

All the more tragic that this performance was neither recorded nor broadcast. In every way – conducting, playing and interpretation – it was world class.

Marc Bridle



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