Isabelle Faust Plays Brahms with Staggering Insight and Clarity

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Tchaikovsky: Isabelle Faust, (violin). London Symphony Orchestra / Semyon Bychkov (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 7.5.2015. (GD)

Brahms   Violin Concerto in D major Op. 77
Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 in E minor Op. 64


In the range of great classical violin concertos there are none which project the degree of arresting intensity we hear in the Brahms Violin Concerto with the soloist’s sudden and dramatic entry –  a  cadenza  figure over an abrupt decrescendo timpani roll and a sustained tonic   pedal on the horns in the lower register. This entry is both a minor key commentary on  the opening orchestral exposition and a transitional lead in to the dominant D major. Here the violin’s arpeggios burn, as Tovey observed, with a flame-like brilliance.

Tonight Isabelle Faust played with staggering insight and clarity. In fact she reminded me of some of the older ‘master’ violinists – Szigeti (at his best) in particular, but also in certain respects, Milstein. But this is not to suggest that Faust does not have her own inimitable tone-world, with very well chosen vibrato – never in the ‘troppo’ sense – and a great diversity of tonal registers. She enters into the ‘Romantic’ lyrical passages, such as in the major key re – working of the introductory material with a beautifully flowing sense of repose,  but can sound as sharp as a razor in the C major at the start of the development section. She plays on a 1704 Stradivarius – her ‘Sleeping Beauty’ – so called as it was stored away unplayed for 150 years. As has often been noted Brahms’ writing for the violin is fiendishly complex and difficult with its formidable multiple stopping, broken chords. rapid scale passages, and rhythmic variation. But Faust managed all this in a way which never brought attention to itself, which was always integrated into the complex structures of the movement, the whole concerto! Bychkov and the orchestra were always ‘with’ Faust. They had obviously rehearsed the concerto thoroughly. I had the sense that from the course of the opening/exposition Bychkov had impeccably timed every contrasting component for that dramatic violin entry. After that entry, and moving onto the multi layered second subject, there is a wonderful phrase in violins which is redolent of  autumnal mystery in the tonic, that Brahms was so fond of. Bychkov and the orchestra phrased this naturally and beautifully, but it lost something of that sense of autumnal mystery in the cavernous Barbican acoustic. Faust compensated for this with her following ascending and sharp rhythmic phrases which interjected her opening entry on f strings.

Surprisingly Bychkov did not deploy antiphonal violins which are almost a sine qua non in this concerto. Interestingly the rarely heard Busoni cadenza was used. This is as logical as the usually deployed Joachim cadenza as it re-works the soloist’s opening entry over a timpani roll. Also  it is a most economic cadenza, both in form and timing. The slow movement with its great F major oboe melody against the initial suggestion of an unbucolic D minor  bassoon, was beautifully balanced, as was the enchanting conversational interplay between soloist and orchestra. At one point I detected a slight lapse in Faust’s concentration, but if anything it added to her communicative intensity to both the orchestra and audience. The finale rondo of ‘gypsy’ bravura is both full of dance energy and a remarkably taut and complex design. Again Faust demonstrated her wide diversity here encompassing fiery rhythmic excitement with a kind of earthy largesse. There were a few instances of hesitant ensemble in the orchestra. But the coda, with its witty transformation of the rondo into a bucolic march in 6/8 time and the soloist contentedly dismantling  the main theme before the orchestra’s last decisive chords, was brought off with energy, finesse and humour. Altogether this was a most compelling and satisfying concerto experience.

The quirky Kurtag miniature, as an encore, made an amusing contrast to the splendours of the concerto.

For some time now I have had the general impression that Tchaikovsky the symphonist is taken much more seriously than was once the case. This impression has been corroborated by conductors as divergent as Markevitch, Klemperer and Abbado, among others. One way of taking Tchaikovsky the symphonist seriously, of course, is to adhere to his quite specific tempi and dynamic makings in the scores. An example of this would be in the first movement’s second theme which develops around the basic key of D major. There has been a tradition of conductors slowing down here, but if we check the score we find that Tchaikovsky adds the metronome mark of 92 which is in accord with the already established tempo. In classic performances by Mravinsky we hear a slowing down here, but Mravinsky keeps the underlying pulse on the move and makes a very convincing transition to the following dramatic passage marked at 104. Tonight Bychkov delivered  a performance  of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony which was both dramatically impressive and well contoured. But it was marred for me by the conductor’s failure to follow the composer’s instructions mentioned above. Not only did Bychkov make a considerable ritenuto here. he also applied too much vibrato, making the whole transtionary passage sound cloying and sentimental. The music here tended to linger thus  necessitating a  accelerando to get back into the tempo of the following dramatic section. The development section was well negotiated  in terms of rhythmic drama and accuracy, as was the lead up the coda with the sharp rhythmic figure on trumpets accurately articulated and played.

The second movement Andante sounded more convincing with a sustained tempo throughout, but occasionally I had the impression that this ‘andante’ should have had more movement. The middle episode ‘moderato con anima’ in F sharp minor, leading to a tutti statement of the motto theme in the home key was powerfully delivered contrasting well with the poetically dying away coda.

The A major ‘Valse’ had the appropriate light touch, with some fine woodwind playing and nice ‘spiccato’ runs in the balletic trio. Bychkov  judged the transition from the Andante maestoso to the Allegro vivace in the finale well and most of the finale, with all its contrast and variation,  was well formed. Perhaps a slightly more measured, but still con moto tempo, as with Mravinsky, would have paid off, because occasionally the chosen faster tempo seemed to run away with itself.  Towards the D major climax there were also ensemble problems in the woodwinds, which seemed to have been rectified by the time we reached the finale peroration of the motto theme, slightly held back as instructed. As the movement developed I would have welcomed  more thrust and sharper delineation in the double basses, especially their interplay with the celli. It wasn’t so much a problem of tonal weight or heft, more of clarity and articulation.  This lack was particularly apparent in the recitative-like passage, just before the D major climax for basses with elaborate descending figures in the woodwind: a marvellous passage inexplicably cut in some older performances, notably from Mengelberg.  The triumphant  coda itself, now modulated in D major, was exciting. It had that sense of drive and  inevitabilty which befits a triumphant coda. Some have trashed this finale, indeed the whole symphony, as being  banal. And Tchaikovsky himself came to deplore the work. But if it is played with due respect to the composer’s explicit instructions it can still sound thrilling and even overwhelming. I think Tovey got it right when he wrote that it has the sense of the composer ‘enjoying’ himself, and with that sense of ‘enjoyment’ being conveyed to the listener/audience.  Tonight, in this finale, and despite some reservations, that  sense of enjoyment came over in spades.

Geoff Diggines


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