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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Debussy, Bartok, Rimsky-Korsakov:
Julia Fischer (violin), London Symphony Orchestra, Emmanuel Krivine, Barbican, 24 April 2005 (MB)

Exotic reveries may have been one of the themes of this concert, but another was orchestral colour. From Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, through to Bartok’s glorious second violin concerto and onto the concluding festivities, in all it kaleidoscopic detail, of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, this was a concert which not only brought solo contributions of outstanding clarity in all works but also defined a measure of how exceptional the London Symphony Orchestra can be at its best.

The key soloist was the young Munich-born violinist Julia Fischer. If she has a somewhat stern appearance this is mere surface; her playing of Bartok’s richly orchestrated second concerto (also to be played in concert, this time with the Philharmonia Orchestra, by Viktoria Mullova on the 26th April) showed a violinist able to meld technical accuracy with spiritual warmth of phrasing to an unusually effective degree. The concerto is diverse, stretching from folkoristic music (though Bartok avoids specific tunes), through to French impressionism and occasional atonalism. Fischer tackled Bartok’s invention head-on: there was the innate lyricism she brought to the work’s opening, combined with a formidable ability to tease out the ferocious harmonies that bubble around it. Technically, she was flawless, even in the passages surrounding the difficult and complex cadenza which was played with all the sophistication and detail of a Bach sarabande. The cadenza of the third movement – this time accompanied from within the orchestra – was equally effective. Her tone is big enough to ride over the orchestra though some of her dynamics were very wide indeed, and even with the minimum of vibrato she saw fit to use I am not sure some of the melodic writing would have reached the farthest parts of the Barbican. Still, when needed her tone became sufficiently large to ride over, or mould into, the occasional crushing maelstrom that emanated from within the orchestra. It was an electrifying performance that marks this young woman out as one of the most remarkable players of her generation.

Placed around the concerto – in some ways the highlight of this concert - were Debussy and Rimsky-Korsakov. Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was not always subtle in its detail (surprising given that the conductor, Emmanuel Krivine, has spent a large part of his career with French orchestras), although there were outstanding solo contributions from the woodwind principals. More interesting was the performance of Scheherazade, a work much more difficult to bring off in concert than its popularity perhaps suggests. Apart from being able to unify the worlds of sound and feeling, a great conductor of Scheherazade needs also to give the improvisatory nature of this music a symphonic structure; in Emmanuel Krivine the London Symphony Orchestra found itself with a mercurial magician at the helm.

Krivine is perhaps closer to Stokowski’s evocative style in this work than he is to Celibidache’s, (who treated it somewhat differently, ostensibly as a visionary set of brilliant and subtle impressionistic interludes within a symphonic scale), but the strengths of the performance were undeniable: sumptuous string detail, tonal brilliance, dynamic rhythms and an unstinting tension. This performance never once dragged, it’s myriad of orchestral detail exploited to the full. Guest leader, Boris Garlitsky, set the tone for the work as a whole with gritty rather than over-melodic strings solos, giving cohesiveness to the elemental nature of the work. This performance’s strengths lay in its power, and the opening tuba, trombone and bass unison (representing Shahryar) were magnificently sonorous, a truly martial sound. Yet there was intimacy and inwardness in the gentler passages, though one would really have to question whether Krivine’s dynamic control suggested that. It came more through the LSO’s supreme ability to conjure up individual sounds: a clarinet or oboe solo here, a harp melting its way through a thicket of massed strings and resplendent brass, a single triangle ringing through the massed percussion and so on. Garlitsky’s solos, rather than acting as a focal point for the work’s mood changes, and thus as a point of continuity between the four movements, instead assumed the mantle of the drama itself.

Nowhere was the LSO’s playing more incandescent – or more dramatic - than in the final movement, in a ‘The Sea’ and ‘Shipwreck’ of unusual fury. The unison of the LSO’s ensemble was something to behold, the solemnity following the impact of the ship smashing into the rocks as appeasing as one could wish to hear it. It was a magnificent conclusion to a direct and beguiling performance of this masterpiece of invention.


Marc Bridle

Further listening:

Bartok, Violin Concerto No.2 (coupled with Bartok Solo Violin Sonata): Yehudi Menuhin, Philharmonia Orchestra, Wilhelm Furtwängler, EMI CDH 7 69804 2

Rimsky-Korsakov, Sheherazade (coupled with Firebird Suite): SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, Sergiu Celibidache, DG 445 141-2

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)