Blacher, Korngold, Rachmaninov with BBC NOW

Blacher, Korngold, Rachmaninov : BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Rumon Gamba (conductor), Matthew Trussler (violin), Town Hall, Cheltenham, 21.4.2011. (RJ)

Blacher: Orchestral Variations on a theme of Paganini, Op 26

Korngold: Violin Concerto in D major, Op 35

Rachmaninov: Symphony No 3 in A minor, Op 44

The BBC NOW made a brief foray on to English soil to perform a fascinating concert of three twentieth century works all written within a decade of one another. Both Korngold and Rachmaninov were living in exile at the time and so too, in a spiritual sense, was Blacher. Born in China, his avant-garde music was looked on with disfavour in Hitler’s Germany, but his artistic fortunes improved markedly after the war when his Orchestral Variations received their first performance.

Mention Paganini and Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini immediately springs to mind. Blacher’s treatment of the 24th Caprice couldn’t be more different; he deconstructs the theme and reassembles its elements in a variety of different ways introducing dance, blues, syncopated rhythms interspersed with sublime passages for the woodwind and heady sounds from the brass. It is, in effect, a mini concerto for orchestra demanding considerable virtuosity from all sections of the orchestra and a steady hand on the tiller. That steady hand belonged to Rumon Gamba who, despite having been music director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra for eight years, exhibited very little Nordic cool in his conducting. Instead he thrust himself heart and soul into the music rallying his troops with clear and decisive gestures and making the audience sit up and take notice.

Then it was the turn of the young Matthew Trussler to play the Korngold Violin Concerto, which seemed to inhabit a different world altogether. Korngold had moved to Hollywood at the invitation of Max Reinhardt where he was to compose film scores for such films as The Sea Hawk and The Adventures of Robin Hood. The themes from some of these films appear in the Violin Concerto, but since the concerto was originally composed in 1937 (but revised in 1945) it looks as if he “raided” the concerto for theme music for his film scores rather than vice versa.

The Concerto is an attractive piece with no rude shocks for the unwary, plenty of luxuriant harmonies in the orchestra and countless opportunities for the soloist to make his presence felt, not least in the demanding cadenza. The slow movement was a plaintive rhapsody with some masterful and sensitive playing from Matthew Trussler which engaged the emotions. The finale started off with a jaunty jig – the image of folk in Elizabethan costumes dancing on the village green sprang to mind – and the music underwent several interesting transformations before its virtuosic prestissimo ending. This was music in the Romantic tradition, but sharing more in common with Mendelssohn than Richard Strauss.

After the premiere of this work Korngold declared: “In spite of the demand for virtuosity in the finale, the work with its many melodic and lyric episodes was contemplated for a Caruso than for a Paganini. It is needless to say how delighted I am to have my concerto performed by Caruso and Paganini in one person: Jascha Heifetz.” I feel sure he would have been equally impressed by Matthew Trussler’s lyrical and dazzling performance supported so empathically by Rumon Gamba and the orchestra.

Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony, did not receive the same sort of acclaim when it was premiered some ten years before Korngold’s concerto – I suspect because the public was expecting the kind of music he had composed two or three decades earlier. But the man and his music had moved on; he had developed a more cosmopolitan and matter-of-fact outlook, and teeming cities with their skyscrapers had supplanted the empty Russian landscapes in his conciousness. True, there were some elements of the earlier Rachmaninov – the sweeping melodies on the strings, well as nostalgic passages in the slow movement with splendid solos by some of the orchestra’s principals. But there were new elements, such as the weird march which interrupts the second movement and the restless, ever-changing finale with its briskness and inventiveness which had all the shock of the new.

Rumon Gamba did not “spare the horses” in bringing out the assertiveness and acerbic nature of the score. While not everyone in the audience may have found the “new” Rachmaninov to their taste, this brilliant, dynamic performance could not fail to impress. Gamba’s clear understanding of the score coupled with his energetic, precise direction brought out the best in this enterprising Cardiff-based orchestra whose programmes tend to be well thought-out and satisfying both from the intellectual and emotional point of view.

Roger Jones