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S & H Concert Review

Shostakovich, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Vadim Repin (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi , Royal Festival Hall, 1st April 2004 (AN)

Shostakovich: Symphony No.1 in F minor, Op.10
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Beethoven: Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67


This concert was launched with a stunningly powerful performance of Shostakovich’s first attempt at the symphonic genre. Indeed, Shostakovich was a mere 18 years of age and still under the tutelage of Glazunov at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire when he produced No.1 out of a total of fifteen symphonies that would pepper his compositional career at regular intervals and at key points in his musical development.

Having stood as Principal Guest Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra since 1994, Dohnányi was elected Principal Conductor in 1997. There is little wonder, therefore, that this evening’s collaboration of conductor and orchestra made so much sense – a flick of the baton impacted immediately the orchestral voice. And Dohnányi is a man of many gestures, with hardly a moment’s rest on the podium. The result of his unrelenting attention to detail was a performance that was rich in colour as it was deep in contemplation.

Throughout the Shostakovich we were treated to a colourful and moving soundscape. The opening movement’s instrumental exchanges (such as the flute solo translating into a high-register violin trill) were seamless and the barely audible and yet clearly articulated pianissimo ending of the Lento was magical.

In the lively Allegro an unlikely piano solo surfaced but with Dohnányi’s masterful guidance there was never a surprise that overwhelmed the band. This piano introduction was accommodated just as neatly as were the fluctuating tempo markings and constantly shifting musical pace. The brashness of a young and impetuous Shostakovich was kept alive within a framework of rationality and control. This approach secured the menacing challenge of the concluding Presto that built up gradually to an electrifying finish.

What an anticlimax, therefore, to follow such a polished execution with a flop. Presumably Repin was having an off-day, but in the world of tightly-competing solo violin artists there really is very little room for musical sacrileges on this scale.

Repin is a tall and generously built fellow. That someone with such an imposing physical presence should be so painfully insecure on his instrument defies visual logic.

Without forcing the reader to suffer as vividly as the listener did, allow me to summarise Repin’s performance of the beloved Mendelssohn violin concerto: consistently out of tune and occasionally missing notes entirely (the opening run of octaves were a real treat!); transparent nerves no doubt exacerbated by an obvious lack of technical control; emphases and inflections in all the wrong places betraying a rather dubious musical understanding; a flat and callously ploughed Andante; a ridiculously fast finale where clarity and meaning were sacrificed to the god of speed.

The accompanying orchestra, however, could not be faulted – indeed, one would have done well to take refuge in their tuttis that were thankfully extremely well conceived and delivered.

Although the interval granted the audience some time to recover, one wondered whether the orchestra had been mildly tainted by the ordeal. That said, Beethoven's fifth symphony started extremely well – a deeply resonating, full-bodied opening statement of the famous hammering motif promised an exciting interpretation.

As in the Shostakovich, the punctilious conducting brought out an entire spectrum of musical gestures, however a few untidy corners gnawed at the bigger picture. For instance, the messy run-up to the first movement recapitulation and the accompanying figure for the second movement clarinet solo that required a few takes before synchronising. Ironically, the time lag between brass and strings in the final movement worked in the music’s favour, rendering a poignantly struggling effect.

Aline Nassif




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