Joshua Bell’s Distinctive Way with Tchaikovsky

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Nielsen, Sibelius, Anders Hillborg, Tchaikovsky: Joshua Bell (violin), London Symphony Orchestra/Alan Gilbert (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 3.4.2016 (CS)

(C) Amy T. Zielinkski
(C) Amy T. Zielinkski

Nielsen: Overture – Masquerade
Sibelius: Symphony No.3, Op.52
Anders Hillborg: Exquisite Corpse
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D

This concert began with the pop of a champagne cork as conductor Alan Gilbert opened his debut performance with the London Symphony Orchestra with a buoyant rendition of Carl Nielsen’s flamboyant Masquerade overture.  Conducting without a baton, Gilbert made the most of the dynamic contrasts and dared to take the string pianissimos down to the barest whisper.  It’s a busy score and the instrumentalists got their tongues and fingers round the notes with facility and flair.  As the textures fluctuated and the cheerful melodic motifs came thick and fast, there was a real sense of theatre and movement, as if we were eaves-dropping on vivacious conversations as the dancers at a ball spun by.  Gilbert struck a fine balance between Mozartian grace and Straussian fun (both Johann and Richard!) in this fleet and exuberant performance.

Gilbert’s stint as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra will end in the spring of 2017.  One feature of his tenure has been the championing of music by Scandinavian composers, past and present.  Esa-Pekka Salonen is currently the orchestra’s Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence, an appointment which runs until 2018.  A 2014 cycle of Nielsen symphonies was followed last year by the release of a recording of Nielsen’s three concertos, thereby completing Gilbert’s Nielsen Project with the New York Philharmonic: four albums representing the complete symphonies and concertos on Denmark’s Dacapo label that celebrated the Dane’s 150th birthday.

Gilbert’s seven years with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic have clearly given him a special appreciation of Scandinavian composers, and Sibelius is no less cherished than Nielsen.  Here we were treated to an invigorating performance of Sibelius’s Third Symphony which at times seemed designed to showcase the glories of the LSO cello and double bass sections, although that is not to overlook the fantastic playing of all.

Much is often made of the modesty and restraint, concentration and ‘classicism’, of this symphony – what the programme-note writer Stephen Johnson calls ‘austere Nordic economy’.  But in Gilbert’s hands the work seemed characteristically ‘Sibelian’ and there were many moments redolent of the impassioned rhetoric of the Second Symphony and the Violin Concerto, the tense rustling undercurrents of the later symphonies, and the cool stillness of The Swan of Tuonela.

The cello and bass theme which opens the Allegro moderato set off at a frolicsome pace, full of buoyancy which seemed to release naturally a host of musical ideas in quick succession – a pressing syncopated motif from the upper strings, a light-hearted woodwind interjection – which expanded warmly before being silenced by the cellos’ lyrical reflections.  The latter theme was guided with delicate economy by Gilbert and I was impressed by the way the conductor was able to coax very particular timbres and colours from the players with the most minimal gesturing.  He had a sure sense of the structure of the movement too, pushing through the development and then teasingly re-introducing the cello’s opening theme, which emerged from the imitative texture with a joyful nonchalance that bloomed into exuberant cello pizzicato spread chords.  The bustling vibrancy did not lessen until it was contained within the lovely hymn-like theme for woodwind, horns and strings that carries the movement towards its conclusion.

At the start of the Andantino con moto Gilbert judged the inherent rhythmic instability well, and the flowing flute and clarinet phrases were finely balanced with the strings’ asymmetrical motifs.  The conductor established a lilting dance whose charm and breeziness carried just the merest hint of a weightier sadness.  The restlessness of the Finale, with its constant changes of tempo and wealth of varied motivic material (Gilbert seemed to cue every single entry), proved more of a challenge to sculpt into a coherent form.  While there was incessant activity there was not always a clear direction and the deep pedal points did not acquire a propelling force until quite late in the movement.  Donald Tovey described the climax of the movement as a ‘tune that pounds its way to the end with the strokes of Thor’s hammer’ but here the final bars almost took one by surprise.

Anders Hillborg’s Exquisite Corpse was composed in 2002 and dedicated to Gilbert who gave the first performance with the RSPO.  It takes its name from a surreal version of the parlour game, Consequences, whereby a story is created as players take turns to write on a sheet of paper, which is folded to conceal their contributions.  In the Surrealists’ hands it became a technique for assembling a mix-and-match image, the random juxtapositions of which, it was believed, would divulge deep psychological truths.

Hillborg’s 14-minute work is indeed a musical smorgasbord, assembled from disparate material from the composer’s own works with a smattering of other voices thrown into the mix.  (The composer has noted, ‘there’s a chord from Petrushka, there’s a style quotation from Ligeti … I should also mention that a quotation from Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony is present, somewhat hidden’.)  Paradoxically, the impression given here was less aleatoric than organic, as the contrasting episodes seemed to progress and evolve, as if naturally guided.  And, this sense of ‘evolution’ was established in the opening bars as a single tone became two, became a cluster, expanded further, growing exuberantly.  The score is virtuosic and the LSO were equal to its demands; the percussion had particular fun, conjuring exotic fury from the assembled array of bass drum, bongo, congas, crotales, glockenspiel, log drums, marimba, mark tree, opera gong, tam-tam, tom-toms, triangle, vibraphone and xylophone.  There were some astonishing orchestral effects, including one episode which seemed to evoke the whoosh of shooting stars.

Despite the density of the material, Gilbert maintained transparency of texture and the more nuanced contributions of the harp, woodwind (with 3 piccolos, cor anglais, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet and contrabassoon added to the ranks) and piano came through without force.  Initially sceptical about the ‘concept’, by the end of the performance I was full of admiration for the invention and skill apparent in the work itself and in its execution by the LSO.

How can a concert hall management ensure a sell-out audience on a shower-strewn Sunday evening?  Programme Joshua Bell playing Tchaikovsky seems to be one answer.  And, judging by its rapturous reception, this intensely driven performance – which, unusually, concluded the programme – gave the expectant capacity crowd at the Barbican Hall what they had been hoping for.  Bell must have played this concerto thousands of times, and recently he’s been acting as both soloist and director in performances with the Academy of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields (review), of which he was appointed Music Director in 2011.  But there was certainly no sense of the workaday here: this was totally committed playing, as the violinist became wholly absorbed in what grew from graceful beginnings to become an almost titanic struggle between soloist and orchestra.

In the violin’s opening reflections, the clarity and smoothness of Bell’s tone, and the way he could modulate it between languor and brightness, were striking.  Silencing the orchestra’s initial assertions with grace and ease, Bell exuded confidence and this self-assurance, supported by superb technical proficiency, did not once lapse throughout the concerto.  As the work progressed, though, I felt that boldness was in danger of becoming relentlessness.  While Bell had countered the orchestral arguments with strength and purity of tone, there had also been beautiful, consoling moments of expansion and repose in the first movement.  But with the cadenza, which Bell made sound quite hostile, a note of tension was injected that was not to be relieved until the final bars of the work, and perhaps not even then.

After a Canzonetta marked by a welcome freedom but also an underlying restlessness, the final movement was breakneck – unnecessarily precipitous, I felt – as if Bell was flinging himself with every ounce of force into prevailing over the orchestral mass.  The tone became more hard-edged and, crouching low then rising triumphantly as he blazed through the virtuosic outbursts, Bell’s absolute physical and mental commitment was plainly evident.  There was no doubting the almost frightening excitement generated but something of the work’s sense of balance was lost in the pressing urgency.

Gilbert was a helpful accompanist, keeping his ear alert to his soloist’s every nuance and guiding each orchestral entry with pinpoint precision.  This created great fluency in the first movement in particular.  When Bell seemed to find the tempo of the orchestral introduction to the Canzonetta a tad on the fast side, Gilbert instantly and imperceptibly responded, then expertly shadowed his soloist’s inclinations as he pulled the melodies this way and that, squeezing every drop from the rich harmonic progressions.

The conductor kept the LSO en masse firmly in the background, especially in the first movement where the solo violin was easily heard against even the more busy orchestral accompaniments, but encouraged solo contributions of presence and glow.  The flute emerged from the soloist’s cadenza-ending trill with wonderful radiance, lifting us from the dark urgency of Bell’s introspective reflections.  In the Canzonetta the horn’s repeating intoning was warm-voiced and controlled, nudging the movement along like a pulsing heart-beat.

Bell’s interpretation is a personal one, and that’s no bad thing.  Even if it would not be my ‘desert island’ recording, this reading was compelling in its self-possessed conviction.  By the final movement, Bell seemed entranced within his own musical struggle and quest.  When he returned to the platform for the fourth time, without his 1713 Huberman Stradivarius, the worshipful audience had to accept that there would be no encore.  And, that was right: Bell had said what he had to say.

Claire Seymour

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