Violinist Esther Yoo Plays Glazunov Concerto with Refinement and Expression

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sibelius, Glazunov: Esther Yoo (violin),  Philharmonia Orchestra, Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor), Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury 12.6.2015 (CS)

Sibelius: 150th Anniversary Concert.Sibelius: Karelia Suite
Glazunov: Violin Concerto in A minor Op.82
Sibelius: Symphony No.2


Written in 1904, Alexander Glazunov’s romantic, rhapsodic Violin Concerto was dedicated to the violinist Leopold Auer, who at that time was a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.  Auer gave the first performance at a Russian Musical Society concert in St. Petersburg in February 1905, conducted by composer himself, although the violinist had reportedly declared the concerto to be unplayable when first presented with the score by Glazunov.  The work is undoubtedly a very challenging, but also rewarding, one for the soloist; but the young American-Korean violinist Esther Yoo – who was named a BBC New Generation Artist in 2014 – had no problem meeting its demands in this refined and expressive performance with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra.

The concerto’s variety of colour and mood of perfectly suited Yoo.  The violinist has a strong musical presence, her tone full and confident.  Each phrase was given an individual musical character, and she was observant of Glazunov’s detailed, and sometimes surprising, dynamic changes and contrasts.  The rich Romantic melancholy was assuaged by sweetness, the grainy depths balanced by a silvery E-String tone which penetrated powerfully and cleanly but was unfailingly dulcet, the intonation impeccable.

Glazunov’s wonderful melodies flowed mellifluously from the first to the last bar, a seemingly infinite stream of lyricism.  Indeed, the concerto is formally idiosyncratic, and the structure presents its own challenges, as there are no formal divisions between the movements, the slow second movement being embedded between the exposition and development of the opening Moderato.  Yoo and Ashkenazy had the measure of the unusual structure though, and the sections unfolded like a rhapsodic tone poem.

As in Mendelssohn’s Concerto – whose youthful freshness Glazunov’s score recalls – the soloist begins immediately, without orchestral preamble.  Yoo made the warm G-string of her ‘Prince Obolentsky’ Stadivarius violin resonate with intensity, and her lovely, free bowing action crafted a flexible, lingering cantilena line which captured the melody’s ‘Russian’ tint.  The variations and elaborations of the slow movement, supported initially by divided celli and harp, unfolded poetically and there were some engaging dialogues and exchanges between the violinist and the woodwind, with some particularly fine clarinet playing.

But Yoo did not let sentimentality get the upper hand, and the fiendish double-stopped interjections brought renewed vitality to the recapitulation of the first movement’s themes, and were impassioned and resounding.  Similarly, in the extremely testing cadenza, composed by Glazunov himself, the violinist made the complex passagework dance, the double-stopped melodies sing and the forte pizzicato chords astonishingly reverberant.

The almost imperceptible entry of horns, cellos and double basses led into the vivacious Allegro, which was presaged by tight, quiet timpani trills and announced with brassy aplomb by the trumpets’ frolicking festive march theme, imitated immediately – and with equal fullness and projection – by Yoo.  She rattled off the pyrotechnics effortlessly: arduous passages in thirds and sixths, rapid repeated down bows, dazzling quasi-guitar effects, and tricky harmonics and left-hand pizzicatos abounded.

Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia had been sensitive accompanists during the preceding movements but now they allowed themselves a freer rein in the episodes between the soloist’s dazzling fireworks, and there was much joy and brightness, as well as diversity, in the Philharmonia’s sound.  We enjoyed lovely solos from horn and bassoon, and as the vivacity and tempo increased the percussion section got in on the act with Ashkenazy coaxing sparkling effects from the triangle, cymbals and glockenspiel while never overpowering the soloist.

In 2010 Yoo became the youngest prize winner of the 10th International Sibelius Violin Competition at the age of 16, and she has since recorded the Glazunov and Sibelius concertos with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Ashkenazy.  After this commanding performance, I’m keen to hear Yoo perform the latter, whose composer’s 150th anniversary this concert celebrated.

The concert opened with Sibelius’s Karelia Suite, a three-movement suite which was assembled by Sibelius’s friend, the conductor Robert Kajanus, from incidental music which Sibelius composed in 1893 to accompany a patriotic entertainment mounted by the Viipuri Student Association at Helsinki University.

The Intermezzo started steadily, with the horns’ processional calls distant and restrained and the strings’ rocking tremolandos beginning softly and fading still further, feathery undergrowth for the marching Karelian woodsmen whom the movement depicts.  But as the woodsmen neared, their pride and defiance (they are on their way to pay their taxes to a Lithuanian duke) was suggested by the increasing definition of the strings’ articulation and the blooming of the orchestral sound.  Ashkenazy retained a fairly unhurried pace though and despite the strong contributions from the brass, horns and percussion, the movement lacked real heroic élan.

The reedy blend of clarinets and bassoons which opens the second movement was beautifully lilting though, and followed by a touching statement of the theme by the dolce strings, although the ensemble between the eloquent violin melody and the cellos’ running semiquavers was not always precise.  Throughout the movement, which depicts a minstrel playing a wistful Ballade to console a deposed fifteenth-century king, Ashkenazy efficiently brought forth the solo voices, and the movement closed with a beautiful plaintive oboe solo above tender pizzicato from cellos and double basses.

The final festive march (a battle cry by Pontus de la Gardie, a French-born, sixteenth-century soldier who became Swedish high commander in a war against Russia) began with surprising restraint and quite a dry violin tone, the dotted rhythms clipped and detached, contrasting with the rising slurred motifs.  The movement was, like the Intermezzo, taken at a moderate tempo and this caused some ensemble difficulties, as the horns did not always find it easy to fit their statements of the theme congruently with the strings’ sometimes slightly laboured accompanying rhythms.  Ashkenazy pressed the orchestra to make the theme’s repeating note ever more insistent, stabbing vigorously with the baton, and the minor key episode towards the close was dark and foreboding before the clouds cleared for the jubilant conclusion.

The Philharmonia gave a fairly sunny account of Sibelius’s Second Symphony after the interval, though Ashkenazy did not neglect the work’s more reflective qualities.  The opening theme of the Allegretto was warm and relaxed, blossoming rather than surging, though it was clear from the first that Ashkenazy was keen to bring out the contrasts of dynamics and timbre: delicate horns motifs were juxtaposed with sharply defined cello pizzicatos, for example, and the bassoons’ melody with timpani accompaniment swelled powerfully.  The development section was well structured, the fragmentary utterances clearly defined but never finicky, and there was a strong sense of growing urgency.  Bass and timpani pedal points powerfully underpinned the structure.

Snappy bass pizzicatos opened the Tempo Andante, ma rubato but any sense of briskness was tempered by the bassoon’s soulful melody, with the timpani again providing sensitive support.  There was much expressive string playing in this movement, with the plaintive falling scale motif perfectly balancing dejection and defiance.  The Vivacissimo conjured a mercurial Beethoven spirit, as the strings scurried impetuously through their racing spiccato quavers and the horns interjected with outbursts of growing insistence and ferocity.  The Lento episode showcased some fine woodwind solos and rich, tenuto string playing.  As with the Karelia Suite, I felt that the underlying rhythmic pulse of the Finale: Allegro moderato needed greater vigour and drive, and this might have improved the overall ensemble.  Ashkenazy build up the excitement, though, and the grandiose theme was fittingly triumphant and resonant.

Ashkenazy, whose relaxed enjoyment was evident throughout the evening, has an economical style, with a few idiosyncratic foibles – a third beat which flicks backwards from the wrist, the baton pointing downwards, a tendency to hunch his shoulders and raise the baton high in the air to signal woodwind and brass solos – but it is an efficient approach without superfluous showmanship.  This was a stately and noble Second Symphony, and I felt on this occasion that the overall effect was more than the sum of its parts.  That’s not to suggest that the Philharmonia’s playing was not impressive and committed, rather that the details were not always brought forth or given due attention, and the ensemble was sometimes less than exact.  But, despite a few imprecisions, the Philharmonia played with plenty of heart.

Claire Seymour

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