It is a good season in the Washington/Baltimore area for violin lovers. We had
Thursday at the Kennedy Center’s (once again sparsely filled) Concert Hall Nikolaj Znaider had his turn. He too may not be on everyone’s radar screen yet, but he is right up there with the Repins, Vengeroffs, and Hahns of his generation of players. He just released a Beethoven and Mendelssohn concerto recording with Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic (of all combos) that has earned kind words from critics (including Tim Page) – and under Leonard Slatkin’s baton the NSO and Znaider presented another staple Romantic violin concerto: Max Bruch’s.
The Bruch concerto is one of those that may get a “oh… haven’t we heard that a few too many times already” questioning look from the hardened and more cynical concert-goers, but actualy: No. We haven’t heard it too many times yet – at least not when it is played very well. Suffice it to say that I would willingly hear it a few more times this week, the way it was presented on Thursday night. Steady but searching, ‘looking around’ was the first entry. Phenomenal the transition from the first note of the second short entry played with gusto to the flittering tail it dragged behind it. The third entry finally gets things under way in the music, and the way Znaider jumped at the notes without the playing becoming crass or vulgar was a delight. He’s not got the big tone that is Vengeroff’s, nor the stunning color palette of Repin – perhaps not even the rock-solid intonation of Akiko Suwanai - but he has bucket-loads of elegance (never mind the odd metaphor there) and a refined tone that allowed him to shine, seemingly without effort. The way he plays any one note, elicits different tones, and lets it wander through the hall is so noticeable that it borders on a miracle that it never sounded artificial, mannered, or self-conscious. Interestingly (and thankfully) he never crossed that line. That his extremely soft touches (he plays one of the most confident pianissimos I’ve heard) that emerged out of nowhere were able to impress as much as they did was in good part the achievement of Slatkin, who had the NSO tightly controlled during those moments. It more than made up for the occasional orchestral thumping in the animated sections.
Znaider, who must be upwards of 6’4", towered over the orchestra. With his extra-long suit-frock and the stiff upper torso, he looked like a European schoolmaster ca. 1870… ready to give the first bench of violinists twenty clicks with the bow-cum-ruler. It belied the flexibility of individual phrases but suited the refreshingly angular structure in which all of the music, especially the Adagio, was placed. Instead of turning the work into a hyper-Romantic piece of mush, he trusted Bruch’s written instructions – a.k.a. the score. I’ve heard the piece pulled around enough to have gotten motion sickness – with Znaider it was a clean ride.
All this may sound overly effusive – but I suppose that isn’t entirely inappropriate for a performance that was simply very good and sounded ‘right’. The Bruch violin concert itself needs no additional comment except that its very popularity and fame obscures the fact that Bruch wrote two more violin concertos that are hardly of lesser quality and should be heard far more often.
J.Corigliano, Of Rage and Remembrance,
Leonardo Slatkin / NSO
It may also have been titled “Of Anger and Tearful Exhaustion”; it plays well with emotions and orchestral color. The unisono A of the opening elicits a sound from the string section that you will not likely have heard before. Fits from the timpani interrupt in a brutal way that would have done Mahler proud. The sound veers between the edged, abrasive, bombastic, and the hauntingly melodious and calm. Especially intriguing is the piano’s reoccurring Godowsky transcription of Albéniz’s melancholic Tango that evokes a pianist ‘in the apartment next door’, courtesy of Lambert Orkis who played from off stage. If I didn’t know before why Robert R. Reilly so cherishes Corigliano, I certainly do now. It’s an effectual symphony without being cheap; it’s impressive but not gratuitous. Most importantly, it contains emotional and spiritual truth.
I really hate to have to say that it was ‘risky’ or ‘gutsy’ to program the work last, without some Mozart or Tchaikovsky to follow – because that would then not give people the incentive to stay and hear it out. Indeed, if an audience cannot appreciate a work like this: music with a pulse about as close to the heart (and stomach) as it gets, I cannot appreciate the audience. People who run at the first hint of dissonance are not capable of appreciating the greater beauty of classical music. (And I am not talking about modernist works here, at all. Run to the hills at a Lee Hoiby sighting, if you so desire… but with this symphony??)
This (patronizing?) rant having been aired, I am happy to say that only a limited number of audience members left after the first half, and fewer yet during the movements. It seemed to have grabbed many of the listeners just enough at an earthy, intrinsically emotional level to pull their souls into their seats, even if their ears were already half-way to the exits. And I must say that this symphony is music (the second movement Tarantella, especially) that grabs you by the [pardon me] balls and if it doesn’t, you ain’t got any. The more plaintive third movement (Chaconne: Giulio’s Song) allowed cellists David Hardy and Glenn Garlick to shine in extensive solo and duo passages. The symphony continues in high style during the Epilogue, becoming threatening and soothing in turn. If you are not scared of a Shostakovich symphony, you’ll enjoy every bit of this one. Apparently Slatkin’s enthusiasm for the work fell on fruitful ground with the players because they seemed to willingly play the heck out of it in front of an audience that contained its creator. Still, the audience was split into those who rushed out after meager applause and those who tried to make up for that with boisterous roars of ‘bravo’.
The concerto and symphony were preceded by a full-bodied, energetic but unspectacular Brahms Tragic Overture, wherein the brass did better than in last week’s Dvořák. I know some Ionarts readers went to see the last performance of the NSO on account of our recommendation of Truls Mørk’s Elgar (and that alone); they would do well to do so again, this time for the Bruch and the Corigliano, either of which would earn the recommendation on its own merits. Ionarts is not getting soft on the NSO (there will be plenty of clunkers to come, I am sure) – this concert just happens to be rather good, too. Repeat performances will take place today at 1.30PM and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8PM. There’s plenty of room everywhere in the hall to accommodate all willing to come.
Read Tim Page's similarly enthusiastic review in the Washington Post here.