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Shostakovich, Bartók and Rachmaninov: James Ehnes (violin) BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 30.10.2010 (MC)


Shostakovich: King Lear - film suite (1970)

Bartók: Violin Concerto No.1 (1907/8)

Rachmaninov: Symphony No.3 (1935/6, rev. 1938)


None of these three scores could be classed as amongst the greatest in the twentieth century repertoire. Yet splendid playing from the BBC Philharmonic, soloist James Ehnes and insightful and wholehearted conducting from Gianandrea Noseda combined to produce an enjoyable concert experience.


I found the opening score to be the most agreeable of the evening’s programme; certainly the most interesting and often exciting. Amongst the least known of his output Shostakovich’s film music, thanks to a number of recent recordings, is receiving much wider circulation. The music to director Kosintsev’s King Lear (1971) is the last film score that Shostakovich wrote. For the suite played this evening Noseda had selected a varied programme of eight pieces from Shostakovich’s full score. Highly convincing in the piece Lear’s Castle was the plodding tread on the strings depicting the crowd of beggars trudging to the castle. The Catastrophe Begins contains glorious lyrical music of increasing tension. Mysterious with an underlying sense of foreboding in The Voice of Truth I enjoyed the short passage for the marvellously toned horns. The Storm a portrayal with thunderclaps of Lear and the Fool trudging through a rainstorm builds to a vociferous climax. Scored for various combinations of instruments both quirky and conventional After the Storm was quite beautifully played. The suite concluded with a passage for solo clarinet echoing the way the suite had begun.


It is said that Bartók’s First Violin Concerto (1907/8) is a love letter in music to Stefi Geyer the young Hungarian violinist. It seems that Geyer kept the only copy of the score locked in a drawer and it was only discovered after her death. The première in 1958 came fifty years after it had been composed. Avoiding ostentation I was struck by Ehnes’s effortless playing, assuredly bringing out the heartbreaking quality of atmospheric beauty in the opening movement Andante. Coming as a welcome respite from the emotional tension that had gone before the concluding movement Allegro giocoso is quicker and weightier. Music of increased dramatic interest is revealed so adeptly by Ehnes. At times I noticed similarities in the music to Walton’s Violin Concerto composed over thirty years later. It was good to hear James Ehnes perform this rather understated concerto. Containing music of a very personal nature to Bartók the playing of significant sincerity just exuded passion. Ehnes played the ex-Marsick Stradivarius of 1715, an instrument with an appealing nutty timbre that carried only moderately through the acoustics of the hall.


Rachmaninov waited thirty years before writing his Third Symphony. This three movement score was generally received unenthusiastically by audiences yet the composer felt it was one of his finest works. The truth probably lies somewhere between the two viewpoints. Conductor Gianandrea Noseda’s interpretation demonstrated his belief in the score adopting an approach that was fresh and committed. In the opening movement Allegro moderato the players provide reserves of restless surging power. I found the fervent and stormy development section particularly impressive. Noseda directed the expressive pages of the Adagio with refinement and precision taking care not to let the tempo stall. The tenderly nostalgic melodies of a Russian flavour are played with subtle beauty. I enjoyed the potency of the eccentric and contrasting Scherzo section. The Finale: Allegro contains impulsive music played with vibrancy and considerable buoyancy. The fiery conclusion to the symphony was highly successful without resorting to an excess of volume.


What I especially liked about the various sections of the BBC Philharmonic is their evenness of balance and their clean and precise playing. Long gone are the brass-heavy years that often overpowered the listener. Out of the excellent strings the cello section took the ear. They don’t have a voluminous sound but their tone is beautiful. The woodwind section is exceptional too especially the impressive individual contributions from the glorious sounding cor anglais and principal oboe. I’m already looking forward to the next BBC Phil concert when they are joined by woodwind virtuosi Sabine Meyer and Dag Jensen.


Michael Cookson

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