United Kingdom Mendelssohn, Beethoven: Jennifer Pike (violin), London Mozart Players / Janusz Piotrowicz (conductor), The Royal Hall, Harrogate. 19.9.2015. (JL)
Mendelssohn: Overture – The Hebrides & Violin Concerto in E minor
Beethoven: Symphony No.3 ‘The Eroica’
Prior to Jennifer Pike’s concerto performance a Mendelssohnian warm up was provided by the Hebrides Overture. This is the composer’s sound picture of the tiny wind and ocean-battered island of Staffa off the west coast of Scotland that contains Fingal’s cave. Framed with balsatic pillars the cave is perpetually attacked by rolling Atlantic waves. Attempts to reach it by boat often fail (as in my case) because of treacherous weather which is the norm. It is a wild, dangerous yet beautiful place as Mendelssohn found when he visited in 1829 and captured in music so well.
Janusz Piotrowicz may not have been there for all I know, but he might as well because his rendering combined those descriptive qualities perfectly. I have heard some performances so polite that Mendelssohn’s Atlantic rollers could have been a wafting breeze in an English country garden. Not so here, as the music drove onwards with necessary turbulence, contrasting with those precious moments of repose.
The concerto has the soloist launching straight in with a tune which many violinists attack as if they were still in Mendelssohn’s Hebrides. Jennifer Pike’s approach immediately gave the message that this was to be a lyrical interpretation, one characterised by beauty of sound. But there was more to it than that in a performance that Jennifer has been honing since a child prodigy. There is a cultivation of phrasing incorporating nuances that can be breathtaking in their subtely. The playing is such a welcome antidote to that offered by so many violinist these days who are keen to impress with string threatening pyrotechnic displays. Jennifer’s virtuosity is there to serve nothing other than the music.
I have witnessed many performances of the concerto from Menuhin onwards but I do believe this one had a beauty of tone that surpassed them all. The astronomical high notes in the first movement cadenza and slow movement were a wonder as they wafted ethereally into space, the join between sound and silence scarcely detectable. It is no wonder that Jennifer’s performance of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending in New York’s Carnegie Hall recently won a standing ovation.
The London Mozart Players were formed well over sixty years ago and have a distinguished record in playing classical period works with chamber forces, the string section being half the size of a normal symphony orchestra. This suited Jennifer Pike’s style perfectly. Under Janusz Piotrowicz they supplied a background energy with cleanly pointed textures in an interpretation in which orchestra and soloist were at one and that, in spite of the lyricism, provided a sense of underlying, brooding passion. Fanciful though this may seem, was this a Slavic quality coming through? Pike and Piotrowicz both share Polish ancestry. On my way to interval drinks, I overheard a woman say, clearly overwhelmed by Jennifer’s ethereality of sound, ‘She’s a Godess’.
There was in the first half a hint that the orchestra needed pushing to meet Piotrowicz’s demands. These demands became considerable in the Eroica which the conductor launched into with one of the fastest first movements I have ever heard. Yet the players were on their toes from the start, realising a performance of power and punch. They had to stay on their toes because after the second movement funeral march, which was suitably funereal, the final two movements were also above average in speed. The resulting impact was considerable and made this old warhorse of a symphony sound stingingly fresh, giving a glimpse perhaps of how radical the ground breaking work was in 1805. The 34-year-old Beethoven had produced a symphonic work of size, vision and dynamism never heard hitherto.
Those brought up with the magisterial performances of conductors such as Klemperer and Barbirolli might have found the speed and relentlessness of this realisation unsettling but I am convinced that it was nearer to the conception that was in the head of the great, deaf composer.