United Kingdom 2017 BBC PROMS 54 – Brahms, Respighi: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Filharmonica della Scala / Riccardo Chailly (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 25.8.2017. (CS)
Brahms – Violin Concerto in D major Op.77
Respighi – Fountains of Rome; Pines of Rome
Arriving a little later than the scheduled 6.30pm start time, the Filharmonica della Scala, with their Principal Conductor Riccardo Chailly, stopped off at the Royal Albert Hall en route to the Edinburgh International Festival where they will perform two concerts at the Usher Hall. They had ‘warmed up’ for this Prom in Lucerne the evening before, and the orchestra and their soloist in Brahms’ Violin Concerto, Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, will team up again when the Filharmonica tour returns to Europe and arrives in Berlin and Freiburg.
Tall, poised and utterly self-possessed, Kavakos was a striking figure afore the large forces of the Filharmonica, looking more hippie-guru than international soloist, with his small black glasses, lank hair and still intensity. Kavakos eschews flamboyance for composure, turning his back on the packed Albert Hall to immerse himself in the first movement’s opening orchestral tutti and playing with self-control and precision. While some might prefer more impulsiveness, freedom and drama, he sought and found the contemplation and nobility in Brahms’ warhorse – the first concerto that the violinist recorded for Decca, with Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig.
Kavakos’ tone is clean and sleek. His right shoulder seems to remain motionless and, from a wrist held quite high his long fingers fall elegantly onto a bow which floats and glides, almost as if by magic. The pianissimos in the first movement were beautifully delicate, and the slowish tempo – a decidedly ‘non troppo’ Allegro – allowed space for Kavakos to achieve fullness and breadth in the multiple-stoppings and clarity in the rapid string-crossing undulations and curves. His bowing technique is breath-taking: in the final movement, he played the double-stopped Hungarian dance using only two inches of bow near to the heel, but the tone was sweet and succulent.
The Royal Albert Hall is a vast arena, though, and at times Kavakos’ apparent interiority seemed more appropriate to a smaller recital hall; but if he might have projected more communicatively, he found an absorbing range of colours in a flawless rendition of Joachim’s cadenza, from a gravelly G string to a whistling top, and certainly observed the ‘lusingando’ instruction.
There may have been nine double basses on the platform, but Chailly coaxed a light airy sound from the Filharmonica, allowing us to appreciate the details – the springy grace of the string pizzicatos in the Allegro non troppo, the symphonic counterpoint of that movement’s development section, the captivating woodwind blend at the start of the Adagio. Some really fine horn and bassoon playing provided a sensitive accompaniment to the soloist. Chailly prioritised melody, at the expense of some of Brahms’ rhythmic and harmonic arguments, but if initially some of the rhythmic ensemble lacked consistency he created urgency in the second movement and, avoiding a long fermata at the close, burst persuasively into the Allegro giocoso. There was a prevailing tenseness, enhanced by some stirring timpani interjections, which kept a true light-heartedness at bay, however; and, serious and self-contained to the last, Kavakos declined to give the Prommers their desired encore.
After the interval, the Milaners took us to another Italian city, conjuring what Respighi called ‘the very voice of the city’, in two of the composer’s Roman portraits – Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome. Chailly placed emphasis on the refined coloration of Respighi’s orchestral writing, at the expense of its brilliant exuberance and rhythmic vitality, but one could not really complain given the delicacy and detail of the Filharmonica’s evocation of the Fountain of Valle Giulia at dawn; the trembling shimmer of sustained strings, whistling harmonics, undulating inner voices, fluttering harp and gentle woodwind burbles created a captivating pastoral idyll. The horns offered a dignified rather than divinely imperious triton-call at the start of the second portrait, but again Chailly made sure that one could hear every orchestral detail – every naiad’s splash – and the strings skipped lightly, bronzed by blasts of sunshine from the brass. Neptune’s chariot swept forward majestically in ‘The Trevi fountain at midday’; Chailly had absolute command of the complexity and structure, and the timpani and percussion pushed compellingly, with accumulating force and thrust, towards the authoritative entrance of the organ. As the sun set over the Villa Medici Fountain, triumph was replaced by transcendence, the descending fragments fading against the harp’s oscillating ostinato to create a spiritual calm.
There was equal virtuosic mastery from the players of the Filharmonica in Pines of Rome, but again I found that while Chailly conjured the sounds of children singing and playing among the pines of the Villa Borghese, the movement – the freedom and wildness of their circling dances, manic marching and raucous fighting – lacked the wild abandon that Respighi’s idiosyncratic, flustering rhythmic patterns create. The catacombs were shadowy and cool, the trumpet solo expressively melancholy, and the brass chant imposing and solemn. The piano’s sparkling introduction having established a dream-like air, the woodwind again excelled in ‘The Pines of the Janiculum Hill’, not to be out-sung by the nightingale, trilling above the divided, muted strings gentle gestures at the close. The army approached stealthily but inexorably in ‘The Pines of the Via Appia’, and if six standard brass, raised at the rear of the stage, replaced the composer’s Roman buccinae, then they jubilantly pronounced what Respighi described as a poet’s ‘fantastic vision of bygone glories’ and blazed their way exultantly into the rising sun.