Tasmin Little Makes Convincing Case for a Szymanowski Rarity

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Szymanowski, Brahms: Tasmin Little (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Olari Elts (conductor). St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. 15.11.2013 (PCG)

Szymanowski – Concert Overture in E, Op.12
Violin Concerto No 2, Op.61
Brahms – Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op.68


It is usual to compare Szymanowski’s early Concert Overture to the works of Richard Strauss on which it is so obviously modelled, but there are parallels also to Elgar and in particular his overture In the South with its similarly vigorous opening theme. But Szymanowski’s overture does lack the sheer melodic memorability of either Strauss or Elgar, although his lush textures were well in evidence and well conveyed by the orchestra here; and there was plenty of excitement and sheer vigour. The resemblance to In the South was reinforced by the solo viola melody towards the end, taken up and developed romantically by the violins. The work is a real rarity in the concert hall, and the performance under Elts had sufficient panache to make one wonder why it is not heard more frequently.

Tasmin Little joined the orchestra to play the Second Violin Concerto from the other end of Szymanowski’s career, and immediately made an impression with her red-blooded delivery of the opening phrase. The folk-dance-influenced music was well captured throughout this performance, even when Little threatened to disappear under the sheer weight of Szymanowski’s expansively romantic orchestration; and her extensive passages in double-stopping were always perfectly tuned, as was the fiendishly difficult central cadenza. It is interesting to note that this cadenza was not the work of Szymanowski himself but of the first soloist Pawel Kochanski, who then rather ungratefully and unfairly complained that the difficulties of the part had contributed to his illness and death three months after the first performance. But if towards the end of the concerto Little was clearly seen to be working much harder than the aural results sounded, that is clearly the composer’s fault rather than hers. Again this work is a rarity in the concert hall, and one was most grateful for the chance to hear it.

Brahms’s First Symphony, on the other hand, is hardly a rarity at all. There is often a problem in performances when the dramatic opening bars overshadow everything that follows; but not here, where Elts (noting that Brahms marks the opening with just a single forte) was briskly lyrical rather than stentorian. For this part of the concert he abandoned his baton, and the transition to the second subject in the first movement (with an unmarked ritardando) betrayed rhythmical unsteadiness; but we were given the full repeat of the exposition, and the same passage was much more secure the second time around. Elts took the second movement at an Andante con moto rather than Brahms’s Andante sostenuto, but the lyrical line was very clearly defined even when the woodwind in the second section might have welcomed the room to phrase more expressively. And the violin solo towards the end of the movement, excellently played by Nick Whiting, left the initial impression that it could have done with more space to expand – which it did however eventually receive.

By contrast, in the third movement the clarinet arpeggios which support the principal theme were brought well forward; and Elts’s acceleration into the trio section almost brought us into the realm of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances even though we were well away from Brahms’s own marking of Un poco allegretto e grazioso. The finale opened with an atmosphere of dramatic expectancy, with superb playing by Tim Thorpe on horn and Matthew Featherstone on flute of the passionato phrases that precede the entry of the ‘joy’ theme. This performance, with its frequent adjustments of tempo to suit the mood of the music, was light years away from the revisionist approach to Brahms which emphasises the composer’s classical roots. Instead he was treated as the full-blown romantic which obviously he was, and the orchestra followed Elts through every twist and turn of his interpretation. The results were both refreshing and exciting.

The concert was recorded for future transmission on BBC Radio 3 and will bear investigation by listeners. Might we also hope for commercial recordings of the Szymanowski played by Tasmin Little, and the Brahms symphonies under Elts?

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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