Compelling Trajectory in Borenstein Premiere

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Nimrod Borenstein, Tchaikovsky: Dmitry Sitkovetsky (violinist), Oxford Philomusica / Marios Papadopoulos (conductor), Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 17.5.2014 (CR)

Nimrod Borenstein Violin Concerto, Op. 60 (world premiere)
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64


Like several of the other soloists in Oxford Philomusica’s series of concerts performing alongside eminent violinists, Dmitry Sitkovetsky has a growing reputation for conducting as well as instrumental playing. In this concert though it was just his skills on the violin which he demonstrated, performing the premiere of Israeli composer Nimrod Borenstein’s Violin Concerto. However, Sitkovetsky’s clear and incisive tone across the four movements of this sizeable work, and the firm control he exercised over the protean solo part, perhaps bore witness to his experience in charge of an orchestra on the conductor’s podium.

For the most part, such command was required from both soloist and orchestra in driving the strongly rhythmic character of the Concerto’s music, particularly its fast outer movements. The lower strings of the Oxford Philomusica had the most to do in this respect, and acquitted themselves well in sustaining the almost mechanical pace with their pizzicatos and rocking octave figurations – the latter similar to the oscillating octave motif which pervades the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8. However, Borenstein’s Concerto does not exude the breeziness of that work: it has a melodic facility, and is essentially tonal, but it owes rather more to the ominous, foreboding soundworld of Shostakovich. The score’s use of a vibraphone adds a mysterious tint to certain sections too, somewhat like Shostakovich’s use of a glockenspiel in his Symphony No. 4. Borenstein’s use of augmented seconds and sixths in the melodies and harmonies might owe something to Hebrew folksong and also conveys a mood of sinister tragedy.

The two central movements are slow ones (a Moderato, then an Adagio which more or less continues the same character) though still imbued with a sense of propulsion, but the tragic aura is more prominent. Sitkovetsky certainly caught the melodies’ forlorn character, though possibly both he and Marios Papadopoulos could have allowed themselves to relax the tension a little so as to create a greater contrast with the higher tension of the flanking movements. But without having seen the score myself, this may be a criticism to lay at the door of the composer rather than the performers. Assuming it was the composer’s intention almost to drain the audience’s energies, the momentum sustained across the performance by the musicians was unflagging and admirable.

In Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 both orchestra and conductor kept up a similarly compelling trajectory through its more clearly contrasted and passionate movements. My only real criticisms – quite minor ones – are with the openings of the first two movements. The quiet opening of the first seemed rather laboured and burdened, and the main Allegro theme which followed was very cautious; though this could be countered by observing that this served to point up all the more the coruscating perorations at the climax of the finale, given all possible triumphal weight from the Philomusica and its blazing brass section in particular. Secondly, at the outset of the Andante second movement, the strings’ solemn chords could have been more tonally rounded and given more body, whilst the horn solo was also somewhat flaccid. Again, though, such deficiencies were compensated by the glorious flourishing of sound from the whole orchestra at the highly emotional climaxes Tchaikovsky contrives in all the movements apart from the Waltz.

In this movement, the antiphonal arrangement of the violins (which had not been so deployed in the Borenstein, incidentally) came into its own, with the violins’ snatches of bowed melodies or pizzicato figures passed playfully back and forth between the two ranks. Rightly too, the scurrying trio section did not take itself too seriously, providing emotional relief from the more highly wrought drama of the other movements. More power erupted in the finale than had been heard previously, with its march-like passages almost sounding like the threatening surge of an army. Any lingering sense of fate or doom was dispelled by the climactic coda, however, for which Papadopoulos slowed down a little, not at all vulgarly but to underline in sober fashion the point of elation reached in the score here.

Curtis Rogers

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