Brilliance in Bartók, Near-Disaster in Brahms

United StatesUnited States  Brahms and Bartók: Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Alexander Velinzon (violin), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 24.4.2014 (BJ)

Brahms: Violin Concerto
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra


A program pairing the most famous purely orchestral concerto with what is probably the greatest of all violin concertos promised rich rewards for the listener. Ludovic Morlot’s performance of Bartók’s ground-breaking work for the most part fulfilled expectations. The Seattle Symphony was in characteristically brilliant form, with some especially fine incursions coming from the brass section, and except for one or two such points as a not really pianissimo first statement of the three-trumpet figure in the first movement’s introduction, and a tempo for the second movement that was a shade on the fast side, Morlot’s direction captured the character of the work with admirable taste and assurance.

The concert’s first half, unfortunately, was by no means on that level. In his first two years as concertmaster, Alexander Velinzon has given us a number of relatively short solos in a manner that suggested a consummate artist and technically proficient violinist. But the Brahms concerto is a different kettle of fish. Velinzon’s big multiple-stopped chords in the first movement were appropriately commanding, if a tad more peremptory than necessary, and there were moments, especially those in which the music falls to a soft dynamic level, that did evoke a sense of the authentic Brahmsian mystery.

For the rest, however, the performance can only be described as a near-disaster. Things got off to a slightly rocky start even before the soloist’s first entry, a somewhat queasy blemish in the violins undermining the security of the first big orchestral tutti. But what was most distressing and destructive was that many of Velinzon’s solo passages were so badly out of tune as to make nonsense of the whole character and meaning of the music.

 In the event, then, the only thing I really enjoyed in this traversal of one of my favorite works was the sublimity of Ben Hausmann’s tone, phrasing, and expression in the slow movement’s main theme. He was no less splendid in the Bartók concerto’s many important oboe solos. I find it hard to understand why, as is rumored, his position as principal oboe is under threat or may even have already been taken from him.

Bernard Jacobson

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