United Kingdom Dvořák and Bartók: Lisa Batiashvili (violin), London Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding (conductor), Barbican Hall, Barbican Centre, London, 9.6.2016 (AS)
Dvořák: Overture, Othello, B174
Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 1, Sz36
Dvořák: Symphony No. 8 in G, B163
Concert preceded by:
Dvořák: Serenade for wind instruments, cello and double bass in D minor, B77, played by students of the Guildhall School of Music.
The ‘pre-concert’ performance was part of the London Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Guildhall Artists at the Barbican’ series in which senior musicians from the Guildhall School of Music perform repertoire that is complementary to that of the main event. It proved to be a very satisfactory curtain raiser. We are used to hearing expert playing from student orchestras and ensembles these days, and here was no exception. No doubt lots of rehearsal time had gone into this very efficient conductor-less performance, in which various instrumentalists took the lead at appropriate points. But the playing had more than efficiency; it had a delightful style and piquancy that matched the relaxed charm of the music itself. But what a pity that this free performance was so poorly attended: surely the LSO and Guildhall should have been able to summon more interest. A pity, too, that there was nothing in the information sheet about the work – not even a list of movements; only potted biographies of the 12 young players.
Dvořák’s Othello, the third in the composer’s trilogy of three overtures entitled Nature, Life and Love, is seldom performed. This is not because it is anything other than a very fine work, in fact a miniature dramatic masterpiece, I would suggest, but simply because it is an overture, that species of concert form which has become quite a rarity. (It is true, however, that the second part of the trilogy, Carnival, is still played from time to time if a programme allows an overture to be performed).
On this occasion we heard a very stirring performance. Particularly impressive was the tone quality of the strings during the quiet, reflective string passages at the beginning of the piece, shaped by Harding with great finesse. As the work gathered pace so did Harding respond in kind, obtaining urgent, highly rhythmic playing that also had a lovely warmth of phrase and brilliant instrumental colours.
Bartók’s First Violin Concerto is played much less frequently than his Second. It had a late start, only being first performed 13 years after the composer’s death and half a century after its composition. One reason for this belated appearance is that Bartók later converted the first of the work’s two movements into the first of his Two Portraits. At the time when he wrote the concerto Bartók had deep feelings for the Swiss/Hungarian violinist Stefi Geyer, and his longing for her is reflected in the passion of the first movement. Lisa Batiashvili succeeded wonderfully well in bringing out the emotion of this movement, and her playing was imbued with a most beautiful quality of tone.
The Concerto’s second movement is a much more lively affair, and reflects Bartók’s happy times in Geyer’s company. Here Batiashvilli produced a display of the most brilliant virtuosity, this being complemented with precise, attentive conducting by Harding.
After the interval it was back to more familiar fare in the shape of Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony. It was perhaps inevitable that this very familiarity prevented Harding’s performance from striking the listener as forcefully as had the music of the concert’s first half, though it had some impressive qualities. We heard a well-shaped, smartly drilled but expressive and sympathetic account of the first movement, then a subtly beautiful Adagio, with the contrasts of mood well brought out and the strings achieving an enchantingly ethereal quality, and then a yearningly melancholic third movement. The opening of the finale was smartly and bracingly contrived, but then Harding let rip, as so many conductors do at this point, and the sound became confused and blatant, with some ugly sounds from the brass (this section had been somewhat below par all evening, possibly due to the absence of some of the orchestra’s usual players). And the end of the work was driven home unmercifully. What a pity this was, given the presence of so many good things in the earlier part of the performance.