United Kingdom Mendelssohn, Brahms: Oxford Philomusica / Shlomo Mintz (violinist and conductor), Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 13.3.2014 (CR)
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64
Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
In the latest concert of the Oxford Philomusica’s series featuring various prominent violinists, Shlomo Mintz both performed and directed the orchestra in two staples of the German Romantic repertoire.
His interpretation of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto was measured, perhaps even too cautious, such that climaxes did not always register with full impact. For instance, the build up to the first movement’s cadenza seemed almost laboured, and at other times when Mintz was not playing, he kept the orchestra on a tight leash to ensure they did not charge ahead too excitedly or loudly.
However, it was to the advantage of this performance that it unfolded consistently like a fantasia for violin and orchestra, as though subconsciously, doing justice to Mendelssohn’s innovation in connecting all three movements. Within that, Mintz modulated his tone on the violin beautifully, starting out sweetly on the opening melody, effecting clear articulations in passages where the solo violin is more exposed, and instilling a woody, mellow tone in the major key second subject, which here – more than in many other performances – anticipated the wistful mood of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Mintz’s cantabile in the slow movement was again tender, but not saccharine, and only in the finale could there have been a more sparkling tone in order to contrast with the chamber-like intimacy of its own introduction and the foregoing movements.
A virtually different musical character emerged from Mintz in Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 3 for solo violin, played as an encore. Its virtuosic double-stopping and feverish invention (often Bach-inspired) elicited a correspondingly high-voltage energy from Mintz, though he also charted a lyrical and seamless course in the more overtly Romantic passages.
As in the Mendelssohn, Mintz’s conducting of Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 was guarded and refrained from driving the music on or taking risks, which went more against the grain of this score than that of the Concerto. Certainly there was a grandeur in the louder and fuller passages, such as the introduction to the first movement, the thumping chords of the latter’s climax, and the coda of the finale. But a prevailing sense of symphonic drama seemed missing, through not working up more momentously to such peaks. For example the transition to the Trio section of the third movement could have been more pregnant given the way its falling arpeggios swell throughout the orchestra, and the storm of the finale’s introduction was not very portentous. Indeed the blazing chorale transformation of the finale’s main theme and the subsequent coda seemed too grand for much of what the performance previously might have promised, though better that way round than an anti-climax!
Despite some delightfully lyrical passages in the first movement, the Andante was rather jolted and failed to blossom. However, this did not affect Natalia Lomeiko’s luscious solo violin playing, as though a presentiment of similar passages in Richard Strauss’s orchestral music.
In no sense could Mintz’s interpretation be said to be wrong, and he is a far more accomplished conductor than some other instrumental soloists who turn their hands to conducting. In fact, the orchestra could have followed his lead more emphatically and successfully at times, such as by communicating the levity in the finale’s great theme which Mintz seemed to imply by his conducting. A greater degree of urgency in places would have made this a very compelling account of the Symphony.