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Ravel, Berg, Dvořák: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Stéphane Denève (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 16.10.2009 (SRT)

Pavane pour une infant défunte
Berg: Violin Concerto
Dvořák: Symphony No. 7

The two works that began this concert are linked by the subject of loss, but they deal with it in remarkably different ways. Ravel’s Pavane is a semi-serious miniature, delicate and melancholy but not really to be taken too seriously. That said, its textures require a sensitive performance, something we didn’t really get from the faltering horn theme at the beginning. However by the time the full violins entered the RSNO strings showed how good they could be with the procession taking on an air of solemnity while remaining as light as a spider’s web.

Berg’s great violin concerto is an altogether grander work. Dedicated “to the memory of an angel”, Berg wrote the concerto to commemorate the death of Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius and a close family friend. In the concerto the violin represents the spirit of the young girl: the first section presents her in the prime of life, full of high spirits, while the second suggests her illness and death. As was his wont, Berg packs the score with codes and subtexts, one of the most obvious being a quotation from Bach’s chorale Es ist genug, itself a meditation on mortality. It is a real privilege to hear this music played by an artist of the calibre of Leonidas Kavakos. He can make the violin sing in a way that few can manage. His sheer virtuosity can be taken as read, but that doesn’t stop you from marvelling at his technical accomplishment, such as the passages at the beginning of the second section where Berg requires the soloist to bow and pluck at the same time. The passages of lyrical intensity shone radiantly from his violin, while the passion and intensity blazed every bit as brightly. The transparent textures of the score, as well as the lack of tuttis, allowed the orchestral playing to sound extra specially good, not least the brass who were remarkably subtle in their many muted moments. Denève had a clear sense of the overall shape of the score and the final valedictory moments were unbearably poignant, especially the moment when the orchestral violins recall the theme that began the whole work. The spirit of Berg’s angel was hanging over this performance, alright.

Dvořák’s seventh symphony provided some light(er) relief. The great Czech’s orchestration still has the power to amaze and his mode of symphonic argument is, for my money, the most instantly appealing of any of the great Romantics. The first movement sailed by without any sense of being too structurally focused, while the scherzo had all the energy and recklessness of a Slavonic Dance. The finale’s concluding turn to the minor managed to feel genuinely surprising too. The finest moment was the slow movement, however, almost an audition piece in the way it focuses the spotlight onto the different sections. A fantastic set of winds evoked Brahms at his very best for the opening theme, while the horn section reached Wagnerian levels of splendour in their subsequent theme. Then when the transformed opening theme returned it was on a surging, pulsating cello section, revelling in the overt Romanticism of the music. As an indication of the great sound that this orchestra can make, this was hard to beat.

Simon Thompson

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