Soumm and Piotrowicz Breathe New Life into old Favourites

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mendelssohn and Beethoven: Alexandra Soumm (violin), Northern Sinfonia Orchestra, Janusz Piotrowicz (conductor), Ripon Cathedral, Ripon, North Yorkshire, 5.5.2012

Mendelssohn: Overture The Hebrides
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor
Beethoven: Symphony no 6 “Pastoral”

How do you breathe new life  into old classical favourites with orchestral players that have played them countless times and could do so in their sleep? It is a difficult task for a conductor but on this occasion it happened.  From the start, new air, in the form of a vicious Hebridean wind fairly whistled around the basalt columns of the remote, spectacular Scottish island of Staffa, the Atlantic rollers delivering crashing waves into the mouth of Fingal’s cave.  This archetypal romantic picture painting in sound derived from first hand experience, Mendelssohn having travelled from Berlin to the fringes of Europe where he was inspired to write the famous overture.

Janusz Piotrowicz has something of a reputation for generating high octane performances and this was already evident in the opening work thanks to the nimble response of the Northern Sinfonia.  Come the violin concerto he met his match in Alexandra Soumm, but it made for a perfect match, for this was one of the finest performances of the work I have ever heard.  It positively sizzled but not at the expense of the lovely Mendelssohnian lyricisms. A former child prodigy, Alexandra is now a mature 23 year old who delivers playing of astonishing power from a slight frame in a way that seems to defy nature.  The three component parts of orchestra, conductor and soloist were interpretively at one, negotiating their way through roller coaster tempi with perfect ensemble.  A wonderful moment was Mendelssohn’s cadenza towards the end of the first movement delivered quite stunningly by the soloist.   Here it was possible to savour the otherwise problematic acoustic of the cathedral setting.  The repeated, astronomically high notes wafted to the vaulted roof and lingered with ethereal resonance around the sacred space, lending authority to the clichéd adjective “heavenly”.

Alexandra Soumm’s playing has, at times, that brand of sheer power that is often associated with Russian practice. Although born in Russia she came to live in Western Europe with her parents when very young but has been studying in Vienna with the great teacher, Boris Kuschnir, himself a pupil of David Oistrakh – and this may have helped preserve her Russian credentials.  We will, no doubt,  hear more of this great talent. Meanwhile, so successful was the current occasion that there is a rumour (nothing more!) that there may be, sometime in the future, a Northern Sinfonia/ Piotrowicz /Soumm Beethoven Concerto.

Many interpretations of the Pastoral take a fairly relaxed view of Beethoven’s rustic world, as if to contrast with the rampages of the previous Fifth Symphony.  Piotrowicz’s countryside,  however, was a place colour-heightened vibrancy. This country tour kept moving, there being a sense of constant latent energy that helped (to return to my opening question) breathe new life  into an old favourite. Among the advantages of the approach was to lend a structural strength to the music in a way quite different from, for example, the more ponderous approach of Otto Klemperer of more than fifty years ago. Take the passage at the end of the second movement “by the brook side” where Beethoven imitates birdsong. Many a performance can take a slump here as the sounds of nightingale, quail and cuckoo are indulged.  At this performance the birds tweeted away while the underlying tempo, previously associated with the rippling of the brook, was rigorously maintained, thus lending a structural integrity to the whole movement.

The birdsong passage helped to highlight another huge strength of the performance which was the playing of the Northern Sinfonia wind section which has a just reputation for being one of the finest in the country.  Beethoven writes consistently exquisite music for instruments that are deeply, culturally associated with birdsong and every soloist responded with playing of distinction.

The Northern Sinfonia has a string section under half the size of a traditional symphony orchestra and it produces an airy, sharply coloured sound that was particularly suited to the evening’s programme.  Piotowicz makes brisk demands with a very clear beat to which the orchestra responded with an exact, nimble sure-footedness. The result was that three popular old scores were picked up, dusted down and polished to shine anew.

John Leeman