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Glinka, Glazunov and Dvořák: Nicola Benedetti (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra, Leif Segerstam, Royal Festival Hall, London, 15.10. 2009 (BBr)

Glinka: Overture, Ruslan and Ludmila

Glazunov: Violin Concerto in A minor, op.82 (1904)

Dvořák: Symphony No.9 in E minor, From the New World, op.95 (1893)

Two nights ago I heard a performance of Dvořák’s 9thSymphony,by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Grzegorz Nowak, at the Cadogan Hall, about which I wrote, “Here was a New World full of drama, tension, passion and tragedy, the only fault being that the first movement exposition wasn’t repeated”. Exactly the same words apply here, for Leif Segerstam’s direction of the same orchestra brought about a performance which was as exciting and poetic as you could wish for, but didn’t ignore moments of reflection or fail to allow the music to speak freely and openly.

From the very beginning, Segerstam stamped his personality on the performance, and it was obvious that he intended his interpretation to be straight forward and totally without frills; everyone was at the service of the music here. The finale, where Dvořák brings back various themes from the work and screws up the tension, both harmonically and emotionally, was quite draining for the audience because Segerstam saw to it that there was no respite in building up the pressure; the very end was catastrophic in its emptiness. This was a magnificent performance in every way, and I musn’t forget to mention Jill Crowther’s ravishing cor anglais playing.

The Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla was givien its usual breakneck pace and  was thrilling. But what I wanted to hear was Glazunov’s delectable Violin Concerto. Quite why this work isn’t a repertoire piece is beyond me, for it has all the necessary ingredients for a great Violin Concerto: wonderful tunes, brilliant orchestration, flashes of virtuoso display and heart warming romanticism. Perhaps the fact that it only plays for about 20 minutes makes it difficult to programme, although it shouldn’t, and there are ways round that if, indeed, it poses a problem for concert promoters. I wonder how long Nicola Benedetti has been playing this work,  for she displayed a truth in her performance which can usually come only from a deep understanding of the piece and many performances. Perhaps she just fell in love with it – who could fail to do that? – for she believed in every bar of the music. Whatever was the magic ingredient, she was a magnificent advocate for the work, and her dedicated advocacy will, without doubt, help to win the work many friends. Benedetti sparkled throughout, from her first entry, rich and fruity on the g–string for the opening theme, to the fireworks of the second half of the piece. I would have been quite happy to hear it a second time, had the players been willing to repeat it, such was my excitement: helped along no doubt by the fact that this was the first time since the Festival Hall’s refurbishment that I have been able to hear the soloist throughout the performance!

I have never seen Leif Segerstam at work before although I’ve heard broadcasts and CDs of course, and his technique is unusual to say the least. He is stocky and powerfully built and the concept of giving a beat seems alien to him, but yet the results he drew from the band were exceptional: he made them play. What’s more, the orchestra seemed to enjoy every minute of him.  This was an uplifting and most enjoyable show and a packed house came away enthusing about what they had heard. Exactly what a concert should do for us.

Bob Briggs

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