Julian Anderson’s New Violin Concerto Impressively Unveiled: But Does it Rise Above its Gimmicks

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Julian Anderson & Ravel: Carolin Widmann (violin), London Philharmonic Choir, London Philharmonic Orchestra, ​ Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London 14.3.2015 (CS)

Julian Anderson: In lieblicher Bläue for violin and orchestra (world première)
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé

Julian Anderson’s new Violin Concerto is the composer’s first concerto.  Anderson, though, prefers to call his ‘concerto-like piece’ a ‘Poem for violin and orchestra’.  And, herein rests a clue to the root of what I found the rather wearying nebulousness of this new concerto: for, despite presenting moments of coloristic and textural beauty so characteristic of Anderson’s music, ultimately the 20-minute work fails to cohere.

 The work is inspired by Friedrich Hölderlin’s late prose-poem In liebliche Bläue (‘In lovely blueness’) a baffling, meditative lyric which embraces both naivety and tragic suffering, and which seems (designed?) to defeat interpretation.  And, one might infer, to presage the poet’s descent into mental illness. Anderson himself describes the poem as being about a ‘beauty that is meant to be elusive, fleeting and something that doesn’t last’.  The composer’s programme article further explains the link between text and music: ‘The form of the piece is correspondingly elusive, as is the relation between violin soloist and orchestra.  Without being too programmatic about things, the violin represents the poet with all his various thoughts, feelings and impulses.  The orchestra can provide a context for those thoughts – a context that may be radiantly luminous and supportive, or else indifferent, puzzled, quizzical or even hostile.’

That’s rather too much intangible inscrutability for my liking!  Yet, Anderson’s decision to explore the shifting dynamic between soloist and orchestra is potentially a rich idea, one which he develops through both spatial arrangements and musical content.  Physical space and musical form are connected: just as the soloist literally changes location during the work, moving from the fringes to the centre – beginning off-stage, the soloist then moves to the side of the first violins, before assuming the more familiar position centre-stage, but turning away from the audience at the close – so the material develops from diffuse scraps and fragments, gradually finding its identity in the form of a sustained lyrical outpouring which commences at the mid-point of the work and which concludes with a melody of lullaby-like simplicity, fading into silence.

The work was written especially for Carolin Widmann, and her strong tone and concentrated focus, as well as the clean, penetrating beauty of her tone, did much to give the work presence and character.  Anderson’s score, by turns lyrical and abrasive, has many interesting sound images: there are shining orchestral chords, bell-like reverberations and resonant harmonies.  Subtle shifts of tint and shade evoke the poem’s vision of the light of sun and moon, and the reflections – both charming and deceptive – of this light upon the earth and in the heavens by which, Hölderlin intimates, man attempts to define himself in relation to God and Nature.

Vladimir Jurowski conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra with characteristic precision and judgement, balancing translucence and fullness.  He generated an edgy energy during the complex rhythmic arguments of the central ‘scherzo-like’ section triggered by Hölderlin’s question, ‘Is there measure on earth?’  There was tension and excitement in the conflict between soloist and orchestra which at times erupted into outright violence.  And Widmann managed to make the minutest gestures – mysterious harmonics, stuttering staccato oddments – steely in their precision, while sweet of tone.

But, in contrast to the soaring arcs of the violin’s melodic journey in the second half of the work, the score contains too many futile or directionless gestures.  And, why is the soloist asked to lay down the bow and play the violin with a pencil?  Perhaps if there were any teenagers in the audience their high-frequency sonic sharpness enabled them to hear what Anderson optimistically describes as ‘a light but very distinct buzzing sound’; but for me – and I suspect for most of those at the Festival Hall – Widmann might just as well have been playing air.

In an interview in Classical Music, Anderson has elucidated: ‘It’s a very personal piece, it’s saying something about art and society which is not comfortable perhaps, but the moments the artist, the violinist, the poet, is left to do what they really want to do, then the writing soars, and you get these big, soaring arcs of melody ‒ but that comes at a cost to the soloist themselves.’  Reading this I was reminded of Miss La Trobe who, in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, designs a pageant from ‘scraps and fragments’: at the close, the cast enact a circular dance, holding embossed silver mirrors to confront the onlookers: ‘Mopping, mowing, whisking, frisking, the looking glasses darted, flashed, exposed. … And the audience saw themselves, not whole by any means, but at any rate sitting still. […] Look at ourselves, ladies and gentlemen! Then at the wall; and ask how’s this wall, the great wall, which we call, perhaps miscall, civilization, to be built by (here the mirrors flicked and flashed) orts, scraps and fragments like ourselves?’ Ultimately Miss La Trobe’s project fails: there is ‘an awkward moment. How to make an end? […] Dispersed are we, the gramophone triumphed, yet lamented, Dispersed are we … The gramophone gurgled Unity–Dispersity. It gurgled Un . . dis . . . And ceased.’

Likewise, Anderson’s ‘Poem’ unravels and dissolves, the violin marooned on a high, drifting note without orchestral support.  There is no doubting the composer’s passionate engagement with Hölderlin’s elliptical text, but despite much excellent playing by Widmann and the members of the LPO, I was not convinced that the work rose above its gimmicks.

After the interval, we had a rare opportunity to hear the complete score of Ravel’s ballet, Daphnis et Chloé, a work more frequently heard in its suite form.  Jurowski was once again attentive to every detail, coaxing some ravishing playing from the LPO and ensuring that not a single variation in tone colour went unremarked or obscured.  Ravel’s instrumental paint-box is vast and the conductor allowed each tint its moment in the light, sustaining a transparent sonority despite the vast forces.  There was mellow richness from the cor anglais and wonderfully glossy clarinet playing (the score calls for E-flat clarinet, two soprano clarinets and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons), while the large percussion section added glint and sparkle.  Guest principal Juliette Bausor excelled in leading a superb team of four flautists.

I’m not sure that Jurowski managed to whip up quite enough magic and joy, though; despite the unfailing beauty of the LPO’s impressionistic vistas, there was a prevailing patina of restraint.  The sudden tempo changes, improvisatory solo passages, and irregular rhythmic patterns were meticulously delineated, but did not quite conjure the wild exuberance of the dance.  The strings’ sul tasto and muted passages whispered delicately, but elsewhere I’d have liked a more impassioned string sound, especially when the section divides into eight or ten voices.  The London Philharmonic Choir produced flexible, affecting wordless vocals, but the constant to-ing and fro-ing in the balcony, for the off-stage choral sections, was a little distracting.  That said, the third tableau did rise in intensity and animation, and the bacchanalian surges of ecstatic dynamism towards the close were thrilling.

Claire Seymour

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