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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 unchanged.

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 orchestra.

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 performance.

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.

Alex Russell

Further listening:

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.

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