Nikolaj Znaider Combines with the LSO for Superb Sibelius

26/09/2016

Jack Sheen, Sibelius, Mahler: Nikolaj Znaider (violin), Christiane Karg (soprano), London Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Harding (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 25.9.2016. (JPr)

Jack Sheen – Lung (World Premiere)
Sibelius – Violin Concerto
Mahler – Symphony No.4

Young composers need to get recognition and make some money, whilst orchestras need to support them as part of their ability to get sources of funding. Jack Sheen’s Lung began life when he took part in the London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik Scheme for emerging composers. Sheen – still in his early 20s – was asked to expand his initial ideas into what now lasted almost 14 minutes for the full orchestra. I wish him every success and wish I could be more enthusiastic, but derived – as he explained himself in the programme – ‘from a huge collection of individual ideas’ … it just sounded like that. I am open to the accusation of musicological ignorance but it was the closest I have heard from a new work to hearing the sounds of an orchestra tuning up. Why Lung? Who knows. It was not for me and reminded me of the words of Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – ‘A play there is, my lord, some ten words long; Which is as brief as I have known a play; But by ten words, my lord, it is too long; Which makes it tedious.’

Much better was the Sibelius Violin Concerto that followed this world premiere and Nikolaj Znaider – a frequent collaborator with the LSO as soloist or conductor – was superb. The Danish violinist has an amiable, unshowy stage presence, effortless virtuosity, emotional expressiveness and a deeply Romantic sensibility. Some of the challenges Sibelius – who was a failed violinist – sets the soloist seem near-impossibilities but Znaider kept tight control of the piece’s virtuosic musings. There was a smoothness of tone bringing a subtly understated mien to what surely – in others’ hands – could be a more barnstorming bravura concerto. That may, in part, be due to Znaider’s instrument – the 1741 ‘Kreisler’ Guarnerius ‘del Gesu’ – which has a richly burnished sound.

The opening was redolent of a far-off Finnish icy wasteland before it broke free of the arctic cold and the sound gained in intensity and vibrancy. Then there was the first of many fast upwards phrases through the orchestra resulting in a held high note when the solo violin meets the orchestral swell. Daniel Harding – who had earlier donned glasses to give studious care to Sheen’s Lung – here led an accompaniment from the LSO that paid close attention to the communicative dialogue between orchestra and soloist. In the second movement the warm tone of Znaider’s violin came to the fore and the soloist revelled in the quicksilver dexterity the finale demanded of him. Those lightning fast passages that end the concerto were much appreciated by the packed Barbican Hall which brought Znaider back to the platform time and again. Znaider’s – apparently obligatory – encore was a maudlin Bach piece which – for me – was rather unnecessary after all that had gone before.

All Mahler’s ten symphonies plus his ‘song symphony’ Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) are somehow connected since they form a continuous unravelling and development of the composer’s unique artistic vision. Numbers 2 to 4 are the so-called Wunderhorn works and in each of them Mahler borrows his earlier settings of texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Youth’s Magic Horn), early nineteenth-century German folk poetry that had been collected and published by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. The Fourth symphony is built around a song from this collection, ‘Das himmlische Leben’ (Heavenly Life), about the glories of dancing, feasting, and singing in heaven. At one point, Mahler considered calling it a ‘Humoresque’ (thus inviting comparison with Dante’s The Divine Comedy) in the somewhat sardonic sense that life is a constant embarrassment of vanity and self-deceit, relieved on occasion by nobility and simple goodness.

The original title of ‘Das himmlische Leben’ was ‘Many Fiddles Hang in Heaven’. It was composed in 1892 and was originally planned to be the finale of the titanic Third Symphony and evidence remains of it in several movements of that work. At some point Mahler decided this would be an anti-climax to an already huge piece and decided to compose an entirely new work (1899-1910 and later revised) with this song as its final movement. This new symphony was to be more optimistic and cheerful and although plenty of childlike innocence can be heard, it would not be Mahler without hints of a parallel nightmare world intruding, often almost subliminally, from time to time. Mahler planned this fourth movement for boy soprano and marks the score ‘To be sung in a happy childlike manner, absolutely without parody!’ Over the years, listeners have been delighted by the jingle of sleigh bells with which the first movement opens, a feature taken over directly from the song. Unfortunately, the German soprano Christiane Karg – though undoubtedly a wonderful singer and someone who has sufficient volume to dominate the orchestra even when singing from towards the back – was not the ‘childlike’ voice Mahler asked for.

One of the best qualities of Daniel Harding’s recent Mahler with the LSO in their Barbican home is how well he understands the acoustics of the hall and no details of his performances are blurred or lost. A colleague on Seen and Heard International, Geoff Diggines, recently bemoaned ‘some “live” performances becoming as standardised as CD fare’ (review); I have to agree with him … and this was one such. Harding’s account of the Fourth was full of lilting grace and charm and the LSO were at their most Romantic throughout nearly all of its 60 minutes. The first movement was cheerfully kaleidoscopic with just a hint of chiaroscuro. For me the Scherzo lacked a sardonic edge (despite LSO Leader Roman Simovic’s virtuosic contribution) but the slow movement – which like the Scherzo has shades of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony – had a gently beauty and profound pathos. The E major outburst was a visceral experience but I never sensed the ecstasy of the gates of Paradise being thrown open and as if taking his cue from his soloist, the finale remained equally earthbound.

Mahler felt that this symphony suffered unduly from snap judgments ‘put about by uncomprehending hacks’. One of his first true supporters was the Berlin music critic Ernst Otto Nodnagel, who said that the Fourth was ‘more artistic and convincing in its simplicity than any work by Strauss’. More than a century later, modern audiences appear to appreciate its inherent Mozartian elegance. That summed up Harding’s approach, yet I am convinced it might have more to say to us.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the LSO visit http://lso.co.uk/.

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