Italy Lalo and Tchaikovsky. Orchestra dell’ Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Conductor, Vasily Petrenko. Ray Chen (violin) Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome. 21.11.2015 (JB)
Music’s tower of Babel is entertainingly delightful. Take the French composers in Spanish. Carmen, Tzigane and symphonie espagnole are instantly more identifiable as Spanish than anything coming from the pen of deFalla, Granados or Albéniz. That is probably because Bizet, Ravel and Lalo worked hard at upping the Spanish stakes. The artifice of their efforts is so masterly that it doesn’t sound artificial at all. Much like photographs which we always thought were showing us the real-thing until we learned that they were not. Most music lovers relate to mastery. De Falla, Granados and Albéniz are more relaxed. They don’t have to make any effort to sound Spanish. They are. And being in their comfort zone is what we admire.
When it comes to instrumentalists, the comfort zone of the natives seems to sound a clear advantage. Just think of the seeming effortlessness of Alicia de Larrocha’s subtleties or her ever so gently drawing attention to the dark shadows underscoring the many Spanish Allegros. And did any violinist convince us of the hot blood of the Spanish south like Pablo de Sarasate (1844 – 1908)? A gypsyesque aggression which thrills by its conviction.
There is aggression too in Ray Chen’s virtuoso violin playing, even if it speaks Spanish with what at best could be called a foreign accent. The twenty-five year old violinist, who was born in Taiwan, grew up and studied in Australia, then at the Curtis Institute with Aaron Rosand; winner of the Queen Elisabeth Competition, he has also landed a very busy Sony recording contract. He is exceptionally handsome and dressed by Armani. That is a complement to both Giorgio Armani and Mr Chen. He plays on the 1715 Stradivari Joaachim, which he waves in the air as he leaps onto the stage to call Grazie to the ecstatic audience and announce his first encore. Well done the Ausies! They clearly made an excellent pop star of him before he left their shores. He knows well how to get his public into his orbit and how to keep them there. His technique is simply astonishing. All the virtuosity is accomplished with ease. The showmanship merely magnifies it.
I don’t think I have ever heard live such a gutsy sound as he drew out of the G string in the opening movement of the Lalo concerto. There indeed was the ghost of Sarasate. He produced a wonderfully dark, almost-viola sound, elsewhere in this movement. But his harmonics which he seemed to call up from a distant stratosphere were piercingly precise, steely, and powerful. All admirable, but as far away from Spain as you could get. And even as I began to despair, he unexpectedly melted into the lyricism of the second subject. Landed back in Spain! In parts of the finale he introduced a spiccato which was seriously grounded: humour with a straight face or a faint parodistic touch? These touches may have had a shade of the bizarre but they spoke Spanish, even if that was Spanish with an entirely original twang.
Vasily Patrenko was not a helpful conductor to the young soloist. He sounded as though he was conducting a village band –all four-square, all of the time, with nowhere for the music to breath. But the Chen musical personality is so enormous that he only had to play a few notes on his fiddle to take over the show, effectively conducting it as well. Maestro Patrenko obviously decided that it was not sensible to compete with the giant.
It came as a pleasant surprise therefore to hear that when Petrenko was on home territory he was a fine conductor indeed. He led a memorable performance of Tchaikovsky’s demanding Manfred Symphony.
Balakirev had been hawking Byron’s dramatic, fantasy poem, Manfred, for some time, in the hope of seeing it set to music. Berlioz turned it down and Tchaikovsky had his doubts. He might have been less doubtful if he had settled to write a ballet on such a theme. But he was determined, in the end, to shoehorn it into symphonic form. Many critics still maintain that this was a mistake. Whichever way you take the work, it is uneven. I found it nicely summarized in the words of a twelve year old boy, whose father (a friend) had brought him to his first concert: I was pretty bored in a lot of it but just as I thought the boredom couldn’t get any worse, something marvelous was to be heard. Sean should obviously be doing my job.
Vasily Patrenko gives an admirable lead in making sure that we don’t miss any of the highlights. His recording with his Liverpool Royal Philharmonic Orchestra won Gramophone magazine’s best orchestral recording for 2009. He seemed to relish the fine wind playing which Tchaikovsky so carefully calls for throughout. And so did the orchestra, especially Paolo Polastri (oboe), Alessandro Carbonare (clarinet) and Andrea Lucchi (lead trumpet). The orchestra’s much loaded timpanist, Enrico Calini, rather stole the show in the drama of the finale. But the strings too, they even managed to create remorse in the opening –a quality I would have thought was impossible to portray in music. But I now see that that is only my underestimating Tchaikovsky’s genius as an orchestrator. Loud and prolonged applause for all of them.