Zimmermann Invites Comparisons with Székely’s Playing of Bartók Violin Concerto

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bartók, Shostakovich: Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra / Juraj Valčuha (conductor), Royal Festival Hall London, 24.11.2016. (GD)

Bartók: Violin Concerto No. 2

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8 in C minor, Op. 65

Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto, along with the violin concertos of Berg and Schoenberg, is certainly the most important violin concerto of the 20th Century. The concerto takes the traditional form of three movements, with the second a slower (andante) more lyrical contrast to the outer, more dynamic movements. It also begins quite traditionally in B major. As has been noted, this B major opening in the old Phrygian mode, with a strong Hungarian colour, especially in the first violin entry, does not last long and gives way to latent instabilities. Harmonic ease is shattered by ascending, descending chromatic scales, with sharp dissonances in brass chords. By the time we arrive at the movement’s second subject we are in a tone-scape which encompasses a juxtaposing twelve tone sequence in which the soloist moves both in and out of an interwoven musical tapestry.

Perhaps Frank Peter Zimmermann lacked the tonal finesse of a Mullova or a Gil Shaham, and more recently of a Patricia Kopatchinskaya, but his tonal largesse with an occasional note of coarseness suited the music well, especially in the well-integrated first movement cadenza. In fact, his playing sometimes reminded me of the big toned Hungarian violinist Zoltán Székely for whom the concerto was composed, although he lacked Székely’s diversity of expression. Székely gave the first performance in Amsterdam in March 1939, at which the conductor was the legendary Willem Mengelberg with his Concertgebouw Orchestra. Later conductors, including Pierre Boulez and Peter Eötvös have given much more nuanced, integrated accounts, but nobody has made the orchestral part more colourful and dramatic than Mengelberg, who sounds vivid even in a restricted recording of that premiere. Tonight Valčuha recaptured some of that orchestral vividness, while at the same time, like Mengelberg, always securing a rapport and dialogue with the soloist. All the way through Valčuha revealed the uniqueness of Bartók’s orchestration: the pp shifts into bitonal ambiguity; the almost eerie sounding tremolandos in the celli and basses; the array of canonic writing for the full brass section towards the third movement coda, given a superb rhythmic ‘lift’ by Valčuha. The free variation form second movement with its concertante writing for high woodwind, celesta, percussion and harp, with the soloist sometimes taking the lead and at other times playing as part of the concertante group, was impressively delivered with soloist and orchestra playing in total accord. The scherzando section towards the end of the movement was executed with fascinating accuracy, both in tonal resonance and mood. Played like this it almost sounded like a ‘concerto for orchestra’ with violin. This is not such an implausible idea given that Bartók composed the greatest ever concerto for orchestra! The third movement finale, with all its transformations of the opening movement’s themes and virtuoso writing for percussion, woodwind. and brass came across as a miracle of concerto variation and contrast. Surprisingly Valčuha deployed non-antiphonal violins, thus blurring some the intricate clusters of contrapuntal clarity. As implied above, the Philharmonia responded well to Valčuha’s nuances, although occasionally I thought the strings (especially the celli and basses) needed a more trenchant thrust. And there were a few patches of untidy ensemble especially in the last movement. Zimmermann fully realised the many gypsy inflected rhythms and the jazzy sounding flourishes, especially in the finale. As an encore he treated us to a virtuoso rendition of an arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Prelude in G-minor.

In Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony Valčuha plunged the audience and orchestra into the opening commanding seven-note idea, ff in celli and basses. (I counted the standard eight double basses although it doesn’t hurt to add an extra couple in such an epic symphony). Valčuha, as mentioned in the preceding Bartók concerto, deployed non-antiphonal violins, a strange choice as this symphony is full of intricate points of contrapuntal invention. This initial C minor opening affirmation soon subsides into a complex range of tonal/harmonic vicissitudes, emanating from C minor, which wander through long paragraphs involving alternating sections of the whole orchestra at various sustained levels of pp, initially in 5/4. All this incredible range of sustained pp is subtended by a terse and ominous bass recitative which both intones and transmogrifies the opening C minor chords. Valčuha contoured and sustained these huge paragraphs/contrasts well making every p or pp sound as ominous and intense as the loudest fff passages. The music never sagged or dragged, as it so often doe. although I sometimes had the impression that some of the sustained, dark menace and tension here could have been projected with a more compelling and brooding sense of force and impact, as heard with Mravinsky and Rozhdestvensky. All through this unique powerful opening section I missed the powerful and prevailing mood of suspense and expectation intoned by these great Russian conductors, including Kyril Kondrashin. Then, the huge development section, still dominated by C minor and C sharp minor (with shades of A and minor), Shostakovich introduces a grotesque and brutal march-like figure (literally a brutalised version of the main C minor tonic) between trumpet and trombone in canon. Here he underlines the main Allegro non troppo marking of the movement. Unlike many conductors Valčuha adhered accurately to the composer’s tempo marking thereby maintaining the sinister impact of the passage and thus allowing with full coherence the cataclysmic climax, now inflected with C major, on full orchestra with a massive onslaught from the battery of percussion. This shattering climax subsides around a complex web of new variations on previous motifs, then into a plaintive melody on a pp string tremolando from which develops a long and haunting cor anglais cadenza, now underscored by a varying and uneven pulse. This extended cadenza incorporates virtually all the previous themes in metamorphosed form; the actual tonality here is undecided between major and minor. No wonder it has often been claimed that Shostakovich is the composer of uncertainty. And this in a work usually seen in terms of affirmative negation! The Phiharmonia’s cor anglais phrased the cadenza almost faultlessly in terms of literal execution but I missed that ethereal (haunting) quality of desolation one hears with Mravinsky and Rozhdestvensky. The dry and restricting Festival Hall acoustic did not help matters here.

Shostakovich described the second movement Allegretto as a simple, rather ‘burlesque’, march movement alternating on a motto in D flat and C flat. Here Valčuha maintained the Allegretto throughout as the composer directs. Particular praise must go to the deft playing from the piccolo at the refrain towards the movements final.

Similarly, the third movement, toccata-ostinato, initially in E minor, marked Allegro non troppo was accurately delivered. Initially the strings, in their motoric rhythmic figurations, were not quite together, but this was only a temporary lapse. Valčuha fully projected the frequent ‘marcatissimo’ and ‘sforzando’ markings, although, as already mentioned, the strings, particularly the celli and double-basses lacked the heft and incision heard with the great Russian orchestras.  In the martial trio with trumpet fanfares and implacable side drum rhythm. Valčuha injected a vivid sense of suspense and expectation, anticipating the build up to the devastating, ‘self-destructive’ climax, hurling the movement into the unison of a subsiding Passacaglia theme, sounding here apocalyptic, with the miraculous contrast into the passacaglia in G minor to the C major which initiates the haunting theme of the finale.

There has been all manner of rhetoric relating this symphony to a particular political programme: it is variously seen as ‘anti-Stalin’ or ‘anti-Hitler’. Although Shostakovich was certainly aware of the context in which he was composing the symphony, the same year (1943) that the German Wehrmacht had besieged his native Leningrad. And Hitler’s Sixth Army was attempting (unsuccessfully) to annihilate Stalingrad. All this cannot be minimised as affecting the mood of the work. But it can be argued that the symphony exceeds any particular context, or programme. Perhaps it is better to see it as a general commentary on human conflict and war, or rather the human (and animal) suffering caused by war.

The unheroic, rather desolate coda, with a freely developed waltz rondo on bassoon (‘neither grave nor gay’) was allowed a flexibility which fully corresponded to Valčuha’s overall conception and tempo/dynamic choice. The C-D-C motto now in C sharp minor initiated one of the most poignant endings Shostakovich ever composed, giving way to tonal undecidability and silence. – a silence Valčuha held for a good few minutes. Is clapping absolutely appropriate here? Tonight, the ovation was initially constrained, but gradually reached full volume, with a particularly irritating volley of ‘bravos’ from a loud baritone voice sitting behind me

All through the Philharmonia was in good form and despite the criticisms mentioned above one could sense that they were trying to the best of their ability to intone the Russian sound, so essential to this most Russian of symphonies. It could almost be compared to trying to master the Russian language. No matter how well a westerner speaks it, it will never have the unique Russian tonal inflection.

Geoff Diggines

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