Sparky Britten from Frang, Chillingly Memorable Dean from Søndergård

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dean, Britten, Dvořák: Vilde Frang (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Thomas Søndergård (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 02.05.2014 (SRT)

Dean: Dispersal
Britten: Violin Concerto
Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 “From the New World”


Like Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, Britten’s Violin Concerto is a work from the New World (he wrote it in 1939 during his American sojourn), but it’s a mix of the modern with some distinctly Old World flavours.  It’s one of his most rhythmically interesting works, always sparky in the first half, even when the tempo is fairly slow, as in the opening movement.  The orchestra got inside the work’s slightly strange sound world and made it come to life (I particularly liked the comic duet for tuba and piccolo in the second movement) and their supportive base helped Vilde Frang’s lyrical interpretation to soar high over the often turbulent orchestral texture.  Frang played with a soaring sense of lightness, particularly in the first movement, and the moment of the recapitulation, where soloist and orchestral violins swap roles for a few moments, was beautifully atmospheric, as was her trio with the timpani and cymbals.  Her cadenza was extraordinary to watch as well as to listen to (plucking while bowing is quite a talent!) and she managed Britten’s cheeky grace notes and inflections with impressive skill.  By the time of the climactic Passacaglia, though, it was the sense of partnership that impressed me the most.  The orchestral strings played with real soul as they surged through Britten’s keening lament, the solo trumpet adding a cutting edge to the texture.  Frang seemed to bounce her violin line off the orchestral sections in a way that was supportive yet assertive and the curious fadeaway ending was spellbinding.

All good Passacaglias should feel like the tightening of a screw, and Thomas Søndergård shaped the movement very appropriately, controlling the unfolding of the tension so as to avoid peaking too soon, and it left me with the sense that there was always more to come.  The same was true for Brett Dean’s Dispersal, but in a much less controlled, more hair-raising way.  The piece was inspired by the name of “Murdering Creek”, a place in Queensland, so named for a 19th Century massacre of the indigenous population.  It’s a short, angry, often frenzied piece that begins with an anguished rattle that put me in mind of the first door in Bartók’s Bluebeard.  It mostly works through aural effects rather than through melody or development, and I was left wondering whether it was describing the killings themselves or their painful aftermath.  The violence dissipates for the ending, an off-stage harmonium sounding as peaceful as a hymn on a church organ, but accompanying the death rattles of the solo violin and cello.  It’s chillingly memorable.

The New World Symphony is, of course much more familiar, but it’s a measure of Søndergård’s conducting, as well as of the closeness of his relationship with the RSNO, that I kept on picking out new things that often get lost in the mix.  They’re little things (a gracenote or a trill that sticks out more than usual, a thoughtful pause instead of a rushing on), but they make a difference and, coupled with the cleanness and brightness of the playing, it made the symphony really memorable and actually quite new in places.  The sharpness of the ending of the first and third movement was exciting on its own, for example, as was the overall strength of the dynamic contrast, exemplified in the sforzando that launches the opening allegro.  The Largo was really transporting, but not for the reasons I expected.  Yes, the cor anglais solo was lovely (well done to Zoe Kitson), but I’ve never been more aware of the bed of strings that supports it, here played with shimmering beauty but no sense of pushing themselves forward.  Their variation of the main theme seemed to hang in mid-air – wispy, delicate and very beautiful – and the string trio that ends the movement was really rather lovely.  There was, of course, boisterous effect when required, though, and in the crash-bang-wallop of the G minor Slavonic Dance we got a brilliant example of that, as well as a great bonus treat to end with.

Simon Thompson


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