Outstanding Performance of Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky: Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra / Vladimir Ashkenazy, Royal Festival Hall, London, 16.10.2013, (GD)

Stravinsky  Four Norwegian Moods
Violin Concerto in D
Tchaikovsky:  Manfred Symphony after Byron in B minor, Op.58


The  real highlight of this concert was Kopatchinskaja’s playing. It was a performance that encompassed so much of works diversity/contrast. Despite Stravinsky’s rather laconic remark

that the concerto’s technical difficulties are ‘tame,’ this is one of the most difficult concertos in the repertoire, especially for the soloist. The composer stated quite clealy that he disliked the grand violin concertos by the likes of Beethoven and Brahms, being more inspired by the  concerto style of Bach  He was particularly fond of Bach’s Double Concerto. The  influence of Bach is there in each of the four movements headings; Toccata, Capriccio, etc. There are also various folk influences where Stravinsky wanted a more grainy sound from the instrument he associated with the devil (in an ironic way of course). This devilish inflection can be heard in his earlier The Soldier’s Tale.  Kopatchinskaja particularly relished these folk and diabolic elements, really playing in a grainy, rough-edged tone. Her various bowing techniques sometimes left me with the illusion that this could not possibly be one violin/soloist! But she was also outstanding in the way she intoned a singing, cantabile lyricism in the the two movements marked ‘Aria’, the first in D minor, the second in F sharp minor. But this was never lyricism in the grand, lush way favoured by the virtuosi mentioned by the composer. With Kopatchinskaja there was always a sense of irony subtending anything too smoothly virtuoso. I had the overall sense of her dancing her way through the score. There were several occasions were she added some rhythms, flourishes of her own. Stravinsky never made any mention of such extemporisations, but they are in full compliance performing practices of Bach, and other composers in the Baroque tradition. And I am sure the composer would

have been delighted by such playing of his Violin Concerto. Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia accompanied her well, although on several occasions I noticed a slight lack of dialogue between orchestra and soloist. Also the clusters of timpani/percussion mf taps approaching the work’s coda, lacked a certain sharpness, sounding rather  obscure and dull. The LPO under Jurowski  in Kopatchinskaja’s recent recording of the work are much more attuned, both in terms of dialogue/rapport and orchestral clarity.

As an encore Kopatchinskaja played a composition of her own. At times it had a kind of plangently intense lyricism reminiscent of Enescu. At the end of the piece she played in dialogue with the orchestras leader – an unexpected and charming effect.

Although Tchaikovsky eventually, if reluctantly, took up Balakirev’s suggestion to compose a grand work based on Byron’s poem, the result being the ‘Manfred’ Symphony’…really four tone poems with an idee fixe motif in each movement…he had increasing doubts about the quality of the the music, finally loathing the work. especially the kitsch, hollow bombast of the last movement with its inverted bathos in the form of the coda’s contrived religiosity replete with sanctimonious sounding organ embellishments. Balakirev’s selections from the poem reflect a rather sentimental, romantic take on the work stressing the anti-hero’s subjective gloom with plenty of alpine fairies, witches and infernal bacchanalian orgies. In fact this approach misses the  black irony/humour of Byron’s poem dealing as it does with incest,  sexual peversion,  and ambiguity – themes probably close to the composer’s own experience. The work was written in 1885 between the Fourth and Fifth symphonies but having little of the dramatic, symphonic economy and conviction to be heard in these works.Conductors who have championed the  work, including Toscanini and Rozhdestvensky found it necessary to make substantial cuts especially in the contrived fugal section of the last movement bacchanal, s if an old fashioned academic had intruded  in on the orgy, sat on top of the mountain of skulls to deliver a lecture on counterpoint!

Tonight Ashkenazy managed to instill a semblance of structural coherence in the four movements. I say ‘semblance’ because in certain sections, the Astrate theme (Manfred’s sister and lost love in the second movement) he rushed unnecessarily. But he did manage bring out some distinctively balletically elegant woodwind playing. in this movement and elsewhere. I am not sure whether some of the speeding up in the ‘gallop’ theme in the last movement constituted a shortcoming or a blessing? But overall, and despite Ashkenazy’s virtues I had the  sense that the performance lacked the dramatic conviction that Toscanini found here. And dramatic conviction is essential if the work is going to make any impression at all. Here I am especially thinking of the opening quasi canonic B minor chorale-like theme with descending, crunching recitatives ( the only part of the work the composer retained an affection for). It all sounded a tad bland, not helped by a lack of real tonal weight and sonority in the Philharmonia’s string section. Also the ‘1812’ coda to the first movement could have had more dramatic edge. At one point in the same movement towards the closing bars of the second lyrical section there was a depressing drop in ensemble, especially in the woodwinds. The third movement, depicting folk life in the mountains had a nice rustic sounding lilt, but even the most perceptive conducting talent can’t make much of the over melodramatic intrusion of the Manfred fate motif toward the end of the movement. Askkenazy managed probably as well as is possible. As would be expected in our ‘completist culture, the contrived  fugal section in the last movement was retained. But no matter how convincingly this is conducted (and Ashkenazy did try to make it cohere with the rest of the movement) it sounds ponderous and even laughable – perhaps its only merit.

I think the over self-critical Tchaikovsky probably got it right here. He came to hate the work so much that it made him feel sick just to be reminded of it. But there was no such critical insight in tonight’s audience who gave the work and the performance rapturous applause.

The concert had opened with a suitably buoyant and charming rendition of Stravinsky’s Four Norwegian Moods which he wrote in 1943 for a Hollywood film commission. It was never used in the film, and the composer never saw the film. But it stands on its own as a set of miniatures for a smallish orchestra. The Norwegian element was partly to do the the proposed film, which took place in Nazi occupied Norway,and also to do with Stravinsky’s use of Norwegian folk melodies. The performance didn’t erase memories of a wonderful  old Markevitch recording, but Askenazy conducted with a suitable sense of rhythm, style and an obvious affection.

Geoff Diggines.