Seen and Heard Concert
Bartok & Bruckner:
Viktoria Mullova (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra, Leif Segerstam
(conductor), Royal Festival Hall, 26 April, 2005 (AR)
Esa-Pekka Salonen was indisposed but we were fortunate indeed
that the charismatic Leif Segerstam was engaged at short notice
to conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra and the programme remained
Playing with the aid of a score, the Muscovite virtuoso Viktoria
Mullova gave us an extraordinarily versatile and multi-faceted
interpretation of Bela Bartok’s highly inventive Violin
Concerto No. 2. This music is subterranean, with metallic
flashes and orchestral passages akin to the composer’s nocturnal
Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste.
Her tone, colour and moods in the Allegro
non troppo were constantly shape-shifting, reflecting the
astringent and angular sounds of the orchestra as if she had antennae
tuned to the incoming sensations. Her unique style of playing
was full of extraordinary paradoxa: a rugged-refinement, a suave-sharpness,
a delicious darkness. Mullova captured perfectly the murky mood
of the Andante molto, producing sharp, splintered sounds
as she zig-zagged between the interjections from the hard sticks
of the timpani and the soft taps of the side drum. In the reflective
passages she took on a hazy radiance, as if hovering over the
Her playing of the Allegro molto was one minute muscular
and taut, the next light and graceful, and again floating in and
out of conflicting moods, sometimes smiling, sometimes sinister
and sarcastic as if her instrument were answering her back. Towards
the concluding passages her sounds took on mixed moods again:
an evil humour, a sardonic rapture which left a disconcerting
sensation of the uncanny. Very few violinists can produce so multifarious,
divergent moods at once and the Philharmonia perfectly matched
her lightning changes of mood and played with great gusto and
panache, guided by Segerstam’s incisive and expressive beat.
Anton Bruckner’s monumental Seventh Symphony can
very often sound like two separate symphonies in concert: the
first two movements and last two movements treated as unified
entities from different worlds.
However, Segerstam demonstrated a masterly control over the vast
structure of the score from beginning to end, unifying all four
movements into a seamless organic whole. Segerstam’s expansive
baton technique is similar to Sir Adrian Boult’s in its
clarity and economy and he held the Philharmonia in the palm of
his gesturing hand, producing exquisite playing throughout the
In the Allegro moderato Segerstam had absolute control
over the structure, dynamics, meter, and pulse of the music, making
it flow organically with a graceful buoyancy. The Philharmonia
were in superb form and played with a chamber-like, serene sensitivity.
The Adagio had a gentle lilting grace and melting reserve,
with the conductor creating a slumberous, melancholic mood throughout.
The Philharmonia strings were warm and gentle but never sounding
saccharine. The closing climax with the cymbal clash was perfectly
built up and judged and was followed by brooding sombre tones
from the Wagner Tubas: I have not heard this played before with
such dark intensity. The concluding flute solo had a poignancy
that melted the ear on impact: a divine experience. After such
a moving movement anything that followed seemed initially to be
an anti-climax. (I often wonder whether these two first movements
could be played on their own in concert – similar to Schubert’s
two movement Unfinished Symphony which also has an internal
unity and sense of completeness.)
In the Scherzo Segerstam eschewed whipping up the phantasmagoria
Ride of the Walküre element, making the music sound
more tasteful and refined than usual, with the brass playing incisively.
The trombones, trumpets and horns were in their element in the
concluding Finale with the conductor judging those eternal
gaps between the big brass blocks, giving the sensation of transmuting
them into glowing bars of solid gold.
This was a highly memorable Bruckner 7 with the Philharmonia rising
magnificently to the occasion. I hope to see Leif Segerstam back
in London again with the Philharmonia.
Bartok: Violin Concerto No.2, Andre Gertler (violin), Czech Philharmonic
Orchestra, Karel Ancerl (conductor): Supraphon 11 1956-2011.
Bruckner 7th Symphony: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Lorin Maazel
(conductor): EMI Red line: 5737482.