United Kingdom Stravinsky, Shostakovich: Igor Yuzefovich (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 3.5.2019. (CS)
Stravinsky – Funeral Song Op.5 (1908)
Shostakovich – Violin Concerto No.1 in A minor Op.77
Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring
Last month, when the (almost literally) last-minute indisposition of Diana Damrau threatened to derail an LSO concert at the Barbican, leader Roman Simovic came to the rescue with a superb performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto – earning the applause and admiration of audience and colleagues alike.
How rewarding it must be for orchestral musicians to perform alongside soloists drawn from their own ‘ranks’, so to speak, and at the Barbican on Friday evening it was the turn of Igor Yuzefovich, who joined the BBC Symphony Orchestra as co-leader last year. Shostakovich’s First Concerto, written during 1947-48 and dedicated to David Oistrakh, was perhaps a natural choice for the Russian-born violinist, and he certainly gave a performance which communicated a deep affinity for its sentiments and the contexts in which they arose, and which still endure. Though the virtuosic challenges are not inconsiderable, this is a work that demands, above all, heartfelt feeling and sincerity, and Yuzefovich’s beautiful tone and songful utterance at the opening of the ‘Nocturne’ was immediately and eloquently compelling. The solo violin seemed to rise as from the deep, the low cellos and double basses resonating darkly, and then to climb, a little vulnerable but determined, encouraged by an expressive bassoon, towards the heavens, while below the string ensemble offered gradually warmer support. The first climax brought forth playing of striking power from Yuzefovich, but the intensity of tone was never achieved at the expense of the relaxed naturalness of his delivery.
By turns melancholy, gentle and troubled, this movement seems to hold something back, restraining its emotions until their release in the subsequently movements, but paradoxically it also embraced a wide expanse. Conductor Sakari Oramo shaped this spacious sound-world with discernment: contrabassoon, low clarinets and horns emphasised the tenderness of the solo line; the harp and celeste sparkled against the muted soloist’s clean-toned stratospheric ascents; the tuba plunged us back down into the depths.
The brittle energy of the Scherzo jolted us out of such wistful wonderings. Both Yuzefovich and the BBCSO traversed a diverse range of moods: after the initial dry disdain, came a demonic abandon that threatened to whirl into the abyss; then came a more martial assertiveness, and finally hints of joy in the defiance. The energy and focus were relentless, the moves between the triple- and duple-time episodes seamless, like musical sleights-of-hand designed to unsettle and disconcert. Yuzefovich’s precision was noteworthy and was matched by the agility and audacity the BBCSO woodwind.
The opening of the ‘Passacaglia’ unnerved us again, a frightening thump from timpani, cellos and basses imperiously silencing the mad revelries of the preceding movement, making space for the beautifully shaped tuba melody, played with discernment by Sam Elliott, which establishes the focal tenor of the movement. The soloist’s entry into the terrain established by the ensemble was transfixing, a yearning, wavering semi-tone gradually blossoming into a moving appeal. As the harmonies settled into warm concordance, so Yuzefovich’s melody, complemented once again by some fine bassoon playing, conveyed increasing surety and direction. The solo violin’s demanding octaves were meticulously tuned and intensely powerful. Above the cellos’ rising scales they conveyed a growing confidence and the uplifting of the collective spirit, and such feelings flowered in the beautiful duet for solo violin and tuba, the tenderness tempered with longing and pathos.
Yuzefovich tackled the cadenza with supreme poise and clarity of thought and execution. So persuasive was his expressive intimacy with the music that the technical demands seemed almost ‘irrelevant’, and the bursting bravura of the ensuing ‘Burlesque’ caught one unawares. Here one admired Oramo’s ability to define mood and colour with such specificity, and the effortless way in which the various BBCSO instrumental sections fulfilled his requests. The scoring of the Concerto is often sparse, but here the full tutti is more frequently let off the leash and the one-ness of the ensemble was impressive. At the close, not surprisingly, both soloist and conductor – and their fellow musicians – looked elated and immensely satisfied.
The Concerto had been preceded by Igor Stravinsky’s Funeral Song, written in 1908 following the death in June of that year of Stravinsky’s teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and first performed on 17th January 1909 in the Great Hall of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory.
The young Stravinsky’s desperation to have his work included in this dedicatory programme is evidenced by an appeal that he made to Rimsky-Korsakov’s widow, and which, if one adopts a slightly cynical viewpoint, seems to intimate both intense grief and professional ambition: ‘Dear, close-to-my-heart Nadezhda Nikolayevna! … I have composed a piece on the death of our dear, unforgettable Nikolay Andreyevich. This piece is already scored. … I don’t know how to get it performed. This thought bothers me terribly. It will be very hard on me if I don’t manage to have it played in some concert dedicated to Nikolay Andreyevich’s memory. … Actually, you know, this is my tribute to the great memory of Nikolay Andreyevich – the tribute of the pupil he loved.’
It seems all the more surprising, then, that the work – in which Stravinsky was moving from post-Wagnerian chromaticism towards the formulation of a personal idiom and voice – was not heard again until 2nd December 2016 when it was performed by Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra.
In his autobiography, the composer provided some explanation: ‘The score of this work unfortunately disappeared in Russia during the Revolution, along with many other things which I had left there,’ reflecting that the ‘orchestral parts must have been preserved in one of the Saint Petersburg orchestral libraries; I wish someone in Leningrad would look for the parts, for I would be curious myself to see what I was composing just before the Firebird.’ Serendipitous prescience perhaps, but in late 2014, when the Conservatory Library was being moved prior to closure for repairs, such orchestral parts did indeed come to light, and since then the Funeral Song has been performed several times in the UK, including at the Proms.
Stravinsky employs a large orchestra – including triple-woodwind/brass, two harps, bass drum, tam-tams – and exploits his forces to the full. Here, against a background of tremolo murmuring, following the thematic emergence of the horn various instruments came to the fore and Oramo created the impression of an urgent, often vivid, dialogue between different orchestral timbres. Similarly, the music spanned a wide gamut of dynamics, from the fortissimo climax in which trombones and tuba blazon the theme to the dying whispers of the fading close. This was a convincing performance, one which was sombre but not neglectful of the work’s inherent passion.
After the interval Oramo and the BBCSO treated us to a performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring which was characterised by a welcome and persuasive litheness. For once, it was not the flamboyance, theatre and daring of the Rite which were emphasised; instead the flair and effrontery were lightly worn, and it was the flexibility of the music – a balletic springiness and spontaneity – which grabbed the attention. The rhythmic patterns and arguments were no less ‘tight’ for being fluid and forward-flowing. Tempi were on the swift side, as the episodes unfolded, not with haste, but with a mercurial mutability which was absolutely convincing, as Oramo sought to emphasise contrasts of timbre and dramatic temperature. ‘Spring’ – rebirth, newness, development, freshness – was ever-present. In an essay, ‘What I wanted to express in The Rite of Spring’ published in Montjoie! in May 1913, two months after the premiere of the ballet, Stravinsky explained: ‘With The Rite of Spring I wanted to express the sublime arrival of the onset of nature renewing itself, the whole arising, panic, the universal sap.’ This uplifting account by Oramo and the BBCSO was certainly true to this endeavour.