Husband and Wife Team Prove to be Ideal Musical Partnership

New ZealandNew Zealand    Liadov, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev: Janine Jansen (violin), New Zealand Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Blendulf (conductor), Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, 28.3.2015.(PM)

Janine Jansen photo credit Harald Hoffman - Decca
Janine Jansen
Photo Credit Harald Hoffman – Decca


Liadov: The Enchanted Lake Op.62
Tchaikovsky: :Violin Concerto in D Major Op. 35
Prokofiev: Symphony No.5 in B-fla Major, Op.100

If would be fair to say that I didn’t REALLY see this concert coming. I’d consigned it to the realm of a kind of “showcase” occasion treating us to the virtuosic skills of one of the high-fliers of contemporary violin-playing, Janine Jansen, via that not exactly neglected piece, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. The two other works on the programme were interesting enough, though I would have preferred to have heard the orchestra play Anatoly Liadov’s Kikimora or his Suite “Eight Russian Folksongs”, each of those rather more substantial than The Enchanted Lake which was an enjoyable enough kind of musical postcard. Maybe there wasn’t room for a larger work, as the symphony is a substantial work time-wise – the best part of three-quarters of an hour in duration.

There’s often a gap between one’s expectations of anything and its actual realization – and for me, this certainly was the case with this evening’s music-making., What a marvellous, spine-tingling, richly-wrought experience it all turned out to be! I’d not heard of conductor Daniel Blendulf, who’s actually the husband of the violinist – but he’s certainly a star performer in his own right.  Besides demonstrating that he was no mean accompanist to his wife’s incredible virtuosity and searching interpretations, he then took the orchestra through a performance of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony that seemed to me to express very much what the music is REALLY all about. See below!

Though I thought the Liadov piece little more than picture-postcard stuff, the orchestra played the work beautifully, bringing out what sounded in places like a Russian “forest murmurs” character in the music, with occasional surges of feeling via strings and winds – not unlike Cesar Franck’s orchestral writing. Blendulf allowed the piece to “unfold”, and the orchestral players’ skills made the most of the spacious vistas this approach created, with some properly “enchanted” sounds. My feeling is that certain of Liadov’s shorter pieces such as this one really ought to be grouped together – say as three “character” pieces –  each making its own individual impression, but the grouping enhancing the overall range and scope of the works via their contrasts of colour, mood and overall intent.

I’d neither seen nor heard Janine Jansen play before, live or via a recording – so listening to what she did was something of a voyage of discovery for me. Thinking that I’d heard Nicola Benedetti play the same concerto magnificently here with the NZSO  recently, and also that it would be interesting to compare hers and Jansen’s performances, I looked up my review of the earlier concert and was shocked to find that it took place as long ago as 2012 – a kind of tribute, perhaps, in itself, that a real sense of the qualities of Benedetti’s playing had stayed with me for so long!  I recalled a very aristocratic, finely-honed way with the music from her, preferring to suggest rather than really “point” the first movement’s dotted rhythms with seamless, though finely-nuanced articulation, but employing an excitingly quicksilver touch with the faster music. Benedetti eschewed a folk-fiddle style in the finale, her playing having a more aristocratic kind of excitement, and giving little suggestion of critic Eduard Hanslick’s infamous put-down of the music after the work’s Vienna premiere – “music that stinks in the ear!”

From Janine Jansen’s instrument came a similar elegance to begin with, though I registered more willingness to “point” (and vary) the dotted rhythms, and, as the work progressed, bring out more of the music’s volatility, daring sharper contrasts of phrasing, of dynamics, of colour, and of tempi – more of what one might call “temperament”, perhaps, but for me never obscuring the music’s line or rhythmic buoyancy. I liked her demonstrative involvement throughout with her musical partners, her conductor and various sections or soloists from within the orchestra, whom she would sometimes point her bow towards after finishing a phrase as if to indicate the message, “your turn to take over!” Where Benedetti shaped the music within parameters of  poise and elegance, Jansen exuded a concentration whose varied intensities “fixed” my attentions;  she tackled every sequence as though discovering it for the first time and revelling in its particular character. What emerged was, to my ears a freshly-minted work, a performance worthy of William Blake’s words “infinity in the palms of your hands, and eternity in an hour”, something that seemed uniquely wrought to that moment, and making complete and utter nonsense of my concern that she might prove to be “just another violin virtuoso throwing off a warhorse”.

As with Benedetti’s performance, Jansen’s playing from the cadenza’s beginning up until the last few emphatic chords of the movement’s end created with the orchestra such a frisson of excitement that parts of the audience couldn’t help itself but burst into spontaneous applause, all very natural and emotion-driven of course. Regarding the cadenza itself, I’ve never heard the whole sequence so organically treated; normally regarded as the “display” parts of the work, Jansen brought all of the gestures and figurations into a musical flow of things. An example of this was the tension her nervous-sounding and tightly-wrought semitone trills generated before the shift to whole-tone ones lightened and loosened the pressure. This was so insightful, through being so integral, Jansen making so much more “music” out of what normally sounds like little more than routine display devices. Another thing, again, like Benedetti, was that Jansen also opened up the cuts (mostly in the finale) that have plagued this work over the years. What’s more she made such musical sense out of them that they took their place in the overall scheme of things with the assuredness of detail found in an Old Master.

Conductor Daniel Blendulf and the orchestra played no small part in all of this, consistently steering a course between elegance (Tchaikovsky loved Mozart’s music, and parts of the concerto have an almost classical poise) and excitement (Hanslick’s “savage, vulgar faces.…violent curses…..(and) bad brandy” sections). There was piquant elegance a-plenty in the Shakespearean introduction by the orchestra to the slow movement, and a touching sensitivity in all of the various solo decorative figures from the orchestral wind players of the soloist’s melodic lines here –  all of which helped the onset of the finale to make the greatest possible contrast, with its vigorous orchestral declamations and abrupt accents, a mood matched by the soloist’s excitable, almost manic arco/pizzicato alternations in reply. Jansen gave the first, dancing theme plenty of impetus, working nicely with the orchestra (the violin teasing both chattering winds and bouncing string pizzicati), and then relished the rotundity of the rollicking Russian theme (pardon the alliteration!) so gorgeously, before dancing away from it all as fleet-fingered as any.

Even in the most trenchantly-bowed bits Jansen never gave the impression of “barnstorming” the music, but instead bringing out the inherent character of what the composer wrote. As a result, this listener thought of Tchaikovsky as least as much as the performer and what she was doing, or, in other words, the brilliance and excitement of the music as much as that of the playing. At the very end, the audience response was like instant combustion – one got a feeling of continuation of what the music had been doing, with people caught up in the “schwung” of the music and its performance, so that the excitement simply continued after the musicians had finished playing! It’s the kind of music-making I live for, and Janine Jansen, Daniel Blendulf and the NZSO delivered it in spades.

After the Tchaikovsky concerto, hearing Prokofiev’s B-flat Symphony (the composer’s fifth) was like looking at the other side of the concert’s Russian coin. Instead of beautiful melodies, elegantly-voiced melancholy and forthright Slavic vigour, we were brought face-to-face with expressions of optimism tempered by unease, gestures of hope beset by conflict, and lyricism constantly assailed by threatening, brutal gestures. Try as I might to regard the “wonderful moments of romantic lyricism” in the first movement as defining the music’s overall character, a view in line with most of the commentaries on this work, I kept on hearing instead the composer’s increasingly despairing attempts at affirmation undercut by none-too-gentle rebukes and even physical blows and buffets, resulting in a triumph of what sounded to my ears like the forces of darkness, a brutalization of the composer’s original intentions. All of this was all-too-viscerally brought out by Daniel Blendulf and the players with unequivocal force and remorseless finality. And I’m blessed if I know why some audience members applauded at the movement’s end ; weren’t they listening to what the music was actually saying?

The motoric second movement was, in its own way, just as disturbing an experience, its essential humour given voice, it is true, but then, after the bitter-sweet trio melody had its say, overwhelmed by warlike forces bent on drowning out expressions of cheerful feelings. If “a game of chase” as suggested by one commentator, the stakes to me sounded too uncomfortably like “playing for keeps”. The performance here kept the different threads alive, the parade-ground swagger very much in evidence, along with the slightly tipsy aspect which animates the slower trio section. As with the first movement the music is ultimately hi-jacked by its watchful demons, the performance here piling on the sounds in no uncertain terms, winds swirling and screeching like banshees, and percussion adding to the nail-up at the end.

What an amazing movement the symphony’s Adagio is! – for me, the repeated ascending lament of the strings defines the emotional territory of the music, returning at every possible opportunity to undercut any illusions that the worst is over. A radio review I heard expressed disappointment at the generalized loudness of the orchestral playing in this movement – but I would want to counter that comment by vouching for the effect upon my sensibilities of a kind of repeated tsunami-wave of despairing sounds, suggesting in no uncertain terms the composer’s grief and anguish at the hostility of his creative environment in the face of some of his most heartfelt utterances – not a situation for half-measures, I would have thought – and we certainly didn’t get them here! The movement’s coda finds an uneasy peace, rather like an ambience surrounding a dream that has been well-and-truly shattered.

The finale begins with “might-have-been” utterances, the sinuous lines doing their best to keep faith with the spirit’s innermost feelings  Their beauties draw forth pent-up energies, waiting for a chance to exult, to proclaim that life is, after all, beautiful! Blendulf launched the rhythms with tremendous élan, horns punching out the repeated notes, and the clarinet revelling in the open spaces, the tempi obviously putting the players on their mettle. It was all spluttering brasses, agile winds and athletic strings, and things were fizzing with excitement, relaxing into a playful jog-trotting mode for a few moments before returning to, firstly, the earlier driving rhythmic mode and then the mood of the movement’s opening, strings and winds seeming to head for a grandly lyrical peroration, with perhaps a coda featuring some brilliant displays of exuberant energy to finish the work. But the grand lyricism was silenced, and the exuberance turned iron-fisted, as the rhythms were assailed by bludgeon-like assaults from brass and percussion. Here, conductor and orchestra took no prisoners, but attacked the notes with tremendous energy and purpose. It was thrilling on a certain visceral level, but also dark-browed and brutal, seemingly overlaid with fear, anger and desperation.

A great work, then and a great performance from Daniel Blendulf and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. In its wake I’m all the more puzzled and intrigued by the reception this work has generally been given, with commentators using expressions like “unequivocal and triumphant”, and “the pure power of sound” to describe the work’s conclusion. Human beings certainly hear music differently as individuals. Nowhere else in his output does Prokofiev “put himself on the line” to a greater extent regarding what a work says about the human condition and its associated “time-and-place” privations. The hammering he got (along with Shostakovich and others) from the 1948 Central Committee’s decree on “formalism in music” spearheaded by the implacable Andrei Zhdanov, ostensibly sparked by the composer’s Sixth Symphony, probably had its roots in the initial success of the earlier Symphony Obviously, somebody going back and reading more carefully between the notes was disturbed by what was there – as well they might have been.

Peter Mechen

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