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Mozart and Elgar: Boston Symphony Orchestra, Nikolaj Znaider (violin), Sir Colin Davis (guest conductor) Symphony Hall, Boston, 16.1.2010 (KH)


Mozart, Symphony № 38 in D, Prague, K.504

Elgar, Violin Concerto in b minor, Opus 61

The city of Prague enthusiastically embraced Mozart’s music, to a degree which never happened in Vienna during the composer’s lifetime—notwithstanding his years of laborious networking, nor the exhaustion of concertizing, nor the ever-increasing catalogue of superb composition. Seven months after the première of Le nozze di Figaro in Vienna, the opera opened in Prague on 10 December 1786; a month later, the composer arrived in the Bohemian capital, and was equal parts astonished and pleased to find his opera so overwhelmingly popular, he reported that everyone was “writing about it, talking about it, humming, whistling and dancing it.” No wonder that this acted like champagne upon Mozart’s musical brain, and one result was the scintillating D major symphony, K.504, which acknowledges the city in its nickname.

It is not a piece which will at all strain the sinews of a band like the BSO, of course. The orchestra were nevertheless fully engaged, and by turns the music came across energetically and elegantly. The forces were reduced compared to (say) the Elgar which was to follow, though still on the substantial side (this is Symphony Hall, after all, and not a salon); and if the result was perhaps somewhat muscular, the textures were always unfailingly clear. As Mozart’s music ought, the piece was made to glisten.

“Sir Edward Elgar promised me a concerto three years ago,” Fritz Kreisler told a reporter in November of 1909. “When he writes one it will be a labour of love rather than profit.” At the concerto’s première, both Kreisler and Elgar (who conducted) showed signs of nervousness; but the event was a great success, with the entire audience “thrilled beyond words.” A ray of that sunny history gleamed at Symphony this weekend, for the violin which Nikolaj Znaider played is the Guarneri “del Gesù”—that is, the very violin upon which Kreisler played the concerto on 10 November 1910. (The instrument is on loan to Znaider by the Royal Danish Theatre.)

Znaider’s is an enormous talent, and it was a thrill to witness how he took command of the concerto—and it is a work of such grand scope, and of such a wide affective range, that it demands all the soloist’s might and main. He played with both heart and sinew, and he commanded not the piece alone, but also the audience. Znaider’s youthful energy and passion, together with Sir Colin Davis’s experience with the concerto, and the Boston Symphony in such fine form, yielded a totality which was magical. Many of my favorite moments were the subtlest: the phrases in the second movement where the soloist dialogues with a trombone choir; the interlocked woodwinds in the hushed final chord in the last few bars of the Andante (and the tonal daring of casting the middle movement of a b minor concerto, in b-flat major); the thrumming strings in the background of the Cadenza accompagnata.

As the final chord rang in the hall, the audience leapt to its feet; and there are many in Boston who will beat a quick path to hear Znaider play here again.


Karl Henning

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