Powerful, Intensely Focused Shostakovich from Brovtsyn

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Glinka, Shostakovich, Mussorgsky: Boris Brovtsyn (violin), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Vassily Sinaisky (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 14.2.2016. (SRT)

Glinka: Valse-fantaisie

Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel)

It may not be the most romantic way to spend Valentine’s Day, but played well, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto cannot help but be a deeply moving experience.  However, Boris Brovtsyn’s performance felt unusually powerful to me, not least due to his intensely focused way with the solo line.  It began with a physical stillness, seemingly moving nothing beneath his shoulders throughout the first movement, but this poured all of his (and the audience’s) focus into the notes, which generated a songful, passionate line that nevertheless seemed like a lament for something lost, as though portraying something darkly behind a veil.

He was more openly assertive in the Scherzo, where he seemed to strike out the beat to which the rest of the orchestra were (maniacally) dancing.  However, the climax came (as it ought to) in the mighty Passacaglia, which he shaped like a great arch, growing in intensity up to the variation where the violin finally plays the theme, then recedes regretfully. This moment, the climax of the concerto, felt like the almost unbearable tightening of a screw, preparing the way for a cadenza that was deeply searching, and after which even the hurly burly of the finale felt almost like an anti-climax.  Even the zany ending Brovtsyn seemed to take entirely in his stride with nary a misplaced hair. This was one of those performances that generates an atmosphere all of its own.

Rather than being a one-man-show, Vassily Sinaisky (a late stand-in) and the BBC SSO matched Brovtsyn for intensity, focus and, best of all, colour, especially in the threatening tones of the dark winds and low brass. Those colours also came in very useful in Mussorgsky’s (or should that be Ravel’s?) Pictures, the highlights of which were an atmospheric Old Castle, a powerfully lumbering Bydlo (with a cracking euphonium solo) and very exciting strings in Baba Yaga’s ride.  The brass gleamed brightly too, though the principal trumpet seemed to need to snatch for breath from time to time.  Next to these repertoire giants, Glinka’s Valse-fantaisie felt very much like the little brother.  It’s clearly an ancestor of Tchaikovsky’s theatrical waltzes, and it was elegantly played, with lots of colour; but the music itself felt rather undercooked, and I kept on waiting for the big tune that seemed just around the corner but never quite arrived.

Simon Thompson

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