United Kingdom Glinka, Glazunov, Tchaikovsky: Julia Fischer (violin),. Philharmonia Orchestra / Jakob Hrusa (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 2.11.2014 (GD)
Glinka Overture, Ruslan and Lyudmila
Glazunov Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 82
Tchaikovsky Symphony No.2 in C minor Op.17 ‘Little Russian’
This was a South Bank ‘Sunday Matinee’ concert. These concerts tend to be of a ‘lighter’ tone usually featuring well well known ‘classics’, although Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony is not played that often. In line with the matinee concerts, the traditional programme format is usually adhered to: an overture, a concerto, and ending with a symphony. Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmilla overture is a wonderful curtain raiser with its sharp energy and gusto. The actual opera, which deals with abductions, an unsavoury dwarf, a magic sword, and romantic re-union, is rarely staged. Perhaps we should hear the complete opera more often. Although the actual plot is over-complex, it contains some wonderful music, including themes from the overture. Hrusa gave the overture a suitably energetic rendition, although overall it was all rather superficial; I didn’t hear much inner detail, especially the woodwind parts. Also, although I was in a ideal front stall seat, I had some difficulty distinguishing the celli from the double-basses. And the three-note recurring timpani figure from the overture’s opening statement lacked the ‘bounce’ and precision heard in versions conducted by Reiner and Markevitch.
Glazunov’s Violin Concerto is also and sometimes a popular favourite. I say ‘sometimes’, as recently it has not been programmed much, at least in London. It in no way equals the violin concertos by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, not to mention of Alban Berg, in terms of innovation. It basically belongs to the late 19th century. But having said this it is a beautifully composed and orchestrated piece, with a wonderfully lyrical allure. Part of this allure is to do not only with the beautiful writing for violin, but with the way that both solo violin and orchestra are intricately related. Fischer played the main opening A minor theme with the melancholy repose suggested in the score. The middle section ‘Andante’ in D flat, taking the place of the traditional ‘slow movement’,’ was generously phrased in G, by Miss Fischer. The section continues with a rich accompaniment for divided celli and harp, although here I had the impression that Fischer wanted to move on more, in keeping with the ‘Andante’ tempo marking. The finale is heralded by trumpets with a distinctive dotted quaver rhythm in 6/8. Some commentators have suggested that Glazunov’s model here was the finale of the Dvorak Violin Concerto, also in A minor. There are certainly similarities here although no conclusive proof that it was Glazunov’s model. Again, in the finale, Hrusa allowed the rhythmic structure to sag, and as a consequence there was a lack of rapport between soloist and conductor. Fischer managed all the technical demands of the concerto well; the rapid semiquaver decoration, the rich harmonics, double-stopping and bariolage. My only criticism was to do with her frequent ‘heavy’ vibrato, which at times seemed out of kilter with the lucid, even ‘classical’, lyricism of this charming concerto.
The so called ‘Little Russian’ Second Symphony in C minor acquired its nickname because of its use of Ukrainian folk-song melodies, especially in the finale with the well known (at the time ) folk tune known as the ‘The Crane’. In fact, Tchaikovsky is known to have referred to it as my ‘Crane’ symphony’. The ‘Little Russian’ name tag has stuck, despite Soviet and post-Soviet attempts to change the nickname or omit it altogether. Many Ukrainians objected to the diminutive tone of ‘Little Russian’, also associated with the unpopular pre-Revolutionary Tsarist Imperialist Regime. From the symphony’s initial performance in Moscow in 1873, it was praised, particularly the finale, for the way in which Tchaikovsky developed/elaborated the quite simple ‘Crane’ melody, contrasting its exposition with an affecting lyrical and song-like theme. Under Hrusa I had little sense of the song-like lilt, essential to this contrasting lyrical theme. Also, and in the same movement, the C major ceremonial opening (‘Moderato assai’) was rhythmically four-square, having none of the sense of dynamic build up and expectation found with conductors like Markevitch and Giulini. In the onrush of the actual finale and coda I heard nothing ‘ of Cesar Cui’s ‘magnificence’ and ‘tour de force’. It merely sounded loud and to a certain extent scrambled, lacking orchestral definition, especially in the brass and woodwinds. Similarly there was little sense of the mercurial and beguiling dynamic contrast in the brief Scherzo. It never came to ‘life’, as implied in the marking ‘molto vivace’. And there was no sense of contrast in the E-flat Trio. The second movement marked ‘Andantino marziale was compromised by the conductor’s seeming inability to establish a clear tempo; not too difficult here with its quite unambiguous march rhythm. The initial theme stated by the woodwinds lacked any sense of balletic elegance, heard so well in the Maazel recording with the Vienna Philharmonic. And when the tutti passage did come it sounded lumpy and ill rehearsed. Again, in the opening of the symphony with its plangent horn melody, the conductor had problems in establishing a clear and sustained tempo. It all tended to drag, in no particular direction. Consequently there was no real sense of transition to the ‘Allegro vivo’ which was a rather depressing affair lacking the essential sharp and clear rhythmic thrust in the strings, the the many cross-rhythmic configurations having no real dramatic and incisive effect. And again I had difficulty in distinguishing between between double-basses, and celli, many of the bass registeres degenerated into a kind of non ingratiating boom. Not surprisingly the various lyrical sequences did not bring the sense of contrast asked for. All this was not helped by deploying non-antiphonal violins.
After the Glazunov concerto Julia Fischer played an unusual and interesting encore. The finale of the Sonata in G minor for solo violin by Paul Hindemith. It was a stunning rendition of this athletic work. For me by far the best thing in this concert.