Vengerov Impresses as Soloist and Conductor

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rachel Lockwood, Brahms and Mendelssohn: Oxford Philomusica / Maxim Vengerov (violinist and conductor), Marios Papadopoulos (conductor), Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 3.5.2014 (CR)

Rachel Lockwood: Fantasia on an Original Theme
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 3 in A minor ‘Scottish’, Op. 56


This seems to have been an auspicious week for violinist-conductors to make their appearance. Just a few days after Nikolaj Znaider’s latest collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra, Maxim Vengerov both performed with and conducted the Oxford Philomusica in their ongoing series featuring some of the world’s most prominent violinists.

 The orchestra’s chief conductor, Marios Papadopoulos, led them in the first half, however, beginning with the premiere of Rachel Lockwood’s (born 1986) Fantasia on an Original Theme, composed for the orchestra’s fifteenth anniversary. In a fairly brief series of variations, the mood progresses from melancholia to jubilation as the tempo gradually increases. The fragmentary hints of the theme at the beginning in the cellos and horns could have been gilded a little more lucidly by the latter for the sake of structural clarity. Whether deliberately or not, the theme’s subsequent formation and metamorphosis sound like a condensed echo of Sibelius’s symphonic output, if not comprising any actual quotations. The gloomily suspended oscillations of the opening recall the beginning of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony, while the outbreak of vigour in the Fantasia sound like the opening out of expansive vistas heralded in the confident melodies of the Second Symphony, and the Philomusica caught these moods well.

 In Brahms’s Violin Concerto, Papdopoulos set out with a rather deliberate, even turgid, articulation of the basic crotchet beat which worked against the work’s lyricism and more tender moments, only tamed by Vengerov’s entrance on the solo violin. However, this was not before an impressively apocalyptic build-up in the orchestra, perhaps meant to look back towards the more consistently stormy first movement of Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Thereafter the interpretation seemed to fall into place with Vengerov speaking alongside the orchestra essentially as a part of it, rather than set apart against it. Or at least, the mellow assurance of Vengerov’s playing on the violin gave that impression, as though bewitching the orchestra to follow suit. A fundamental part of this was his skill in weaving seamless lines of music from the four strings of the violin with just the slightest inflections of the bow – even the sequences of triple-stopped chords were cleanly executed without discontinuity or unevenness in tonal quality.

 The oboe’s opening melody in the Adagio did not linger, but again it seemed that Vengerov pulled the orchestra back just a little to probe more deeply into the emotional complexity of this music. This served as a haven of contemplation before launching into a hefty account of the gypsy-style finale. Despite a momentous, symphonic sense of urgency which would have better suited the long first movement, the dance remained light enough on its feet, and sufficiently playful on Vengerov’s part, for all his fiery zeal.

 Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 was originally billed for the second half, but instead Vengerov conducted Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ Symphony. Vengerov was as totally absorbed in his conducting as he had been in his playing on the violin, and even though his manner on the podium was relatively undemonstrative, he commanded a considerable expressive range from the Philomusica. For instance, after a stiff, icy opening to the whole work, there followed a hushed, mysterious rendition of the main Allegro theme which, nevertheless, was instilled with a sense of purpose. Each return of that theme remained gracefully poised amidst the prevailing high drama of the rest of the movement.

 The orchestra was not pared down at all for this performance, and sometimes the tuttis seemed too dense; for example in the contrasts with the otherwise fresh and alert main section of the Vivace second movement (the playing of the oboes and clarinets particularly commendable here), or in the heavily foreboding Adagio – although the final chords of the latter movement evinced a Brahmsian glow. Also, the majestic theme of the finale’s coda perhaps started too thickly, not creating a sense of emergence from the distance into full splendour. But the resplendent horns made for a stirring climax, capping a dramatic account of this movement and the Symphony overall. Vengerov demonstrated an essentially sound grasp of the work’s pace and structure, and it was not his fault if the matter of orchestral balance and weight would have been better addressed in an acoustic at least twice the size of the Sheldonian.

Curtis Rogers

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