Two ‘Big Hitters’ and a Relative Mathias Rarity from Varga and the RSNO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mathias, Brahms, Dvořák: Kristóf Baráti (violin), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Gilbert Varga (conductor). Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 1.3.2019. (SRT)

Mathias – Requiescat

Brahms – Violin Concerto

Dvořák – Symphony No.9 ‘From the New World’

‘Some pieces are classics for a reason’ ran the tag line for this concert in the Royal Scottish National Orchestra brochure, and it’s hard to go too far wrong when you programme two big hitters like Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony and Brahms’s Violin Concerto.

Having a Hungarian pairing as conductor and soloist might not have made any practical difference in the Brahms, but at least it did something to connect the piece with its original heritage via Joseph Joachim. This was as clean and lyrical a performance of the concerto as you could hope to hear. Kristóf Baráti leaned into the music (both metaphorically and literally), playing with a clean sense of line, even in the cadenzas, and a beautiful sense of flow in the first movement. Gilbert Varga conducted with an admirable sense of clarity, too, and the lovely flow of the Adagio came across beautifully, generating from its oboe solo but also through the violin’s interaction with the orchestra.

That clarity and freshness was also there in the Dvořák, though Varga’s rapid tempi didn’t always help. The slow introduction was a long way from slow, and he went at the Largo like a bull at a gate, ruining the contemplative atmosphere, for all the beauty of the playing. The third and fourth movements suited this approach much better, but even the finale felt a little breathless.

In fact, the most interesting piece on the programme turned out to be the least well-known. Mathias’s Requiescat is only ten minutes long, but it is hardly right to call it a miniature. Instead it is a psychological nerve-jangler, sounding like it has walked straight out of a horror film with its quivering winds, icy marimba and strings quivering on the verge of audibility. Played with colour and transparency, it is a real ear-opener. There is more to this composer than just Sir Christémas.

Simon Thompson

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