United Kingdom BBC PROM 61 – Dvořák and Korngold: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Andrés Orozco-Estrada (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 4.9.2019. (AS)
Dvořák – The Noonday Witch, B196; Symphony No.9 in E minor, B178 From the New World
Korngold – Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Korngold based his Violin Concerto of 1945 on material taken from his existing film scores. The work has gained in popularity in recent years after it was rather looked down upon in its early life, and there may be a reason why this is so: perhaps present-day audiences are more receptive to late – or in this case – almost posthumous romanticism, than were their predecessors. The concerto certainly offers a lush, seductive quality of sound throughout, and the manner of Korngold’s writing is very easily assimilable. But is the quality of that writing any more than that of decently good film music specifically contrived to accompany moving pictures? Are there any themes that stick in the memory and have you humming them afterwards? After several hearings of the work I don’t hear anything memorable in it at all, and it seems merely a skillful assembly of diverse episodes originally composed as descriptive music. Leonidas Kavakos is a consummate artist, and his playing and that of the orchestra were of a very high standard. As an encore Kavakos played Francesco Tárrega’s guitar piece Recuerdos de la Alhambra in a most effective transcription. This was an enterprising departure from the usual solo violin encore repertoire.
Dvořák’s late tone poems are all high-class, fascinating works. His The Noonday Witch began the concert and is a fine example of his work in this genre, with its particularly striking beginning that depicts a mother continually interrupted in her work by her fractious child – a remarkable piece of invention. The rest of the piece continues in high drama, which tells how the exasperated mother threatens to invoke the Noonday Witch, who duly appears and after invoking a spell on both mother and child leaves the latter dead.
Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the orchestra played this highly charged work with great commitment, energy and virtuosity. The impressively rich, warm quality of the Vienna Philharmonic’s strings was at once very apparent, as was the comfortably rounded middle-European timbre of the woodwind and brass: the acid-toned quality of the orchestra’s principal oboes is thankfully a thing of the past. It was unfortunate that the orchestra had to abandon a first attempt to play the work after a bar or two and start again, owing to the ring of a mobile in the arena. The pre-concert announcement that requests audience members to turn off their phones is loud and clear but is ignored by some of those who attend.
The New World Symphony has triumphantly survived its excessive popularity over the years and in the right hands it can still come across as a fresh, appealing composition with many poignant moments. Orozco-Estrada gave a slightly eccentric account of the first movement. This should surely be presented as a flowing entity, with expressive deviations from a basic tempo, certainly, but here the conductor held up the music’s natural progress by using slightly slower tempos to mark different sections. For instance, he did eschew the old habit, now usually abandoned, of slowing up before the exposition’s closing theme, but instead he slowed the theme itself and made it sound unnaturally stilted. These distortions spoiled a generally lively account of the movement. After this, however, Orozco-Estrada’s performance held no surprises, and the three remaining movements received respectful, committed readings, full of affection and rich in personality.
For an encore Orozco-Estrada unsurprisingly turned to music for which the VPO is particularly famed – that of the Strauss family. We heard a vivacious rendering of Josef Strauss’s fast polka Ohne Sorgen!, with its shouted contributions from members of the orchestra. To help matters along still further, the conductor encouraged the audience to clap at specifically indicated moments. It was a pleasant way to end a good evening.