In Philadelphia, a Beethoven Violin Concerto that challenged the greatest of the past half-century

14/11/2019

United StatesUnited States Beethoven: Francisco Fullana (violin), Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia / Dirk Brossé (conductor), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 4.11.2019 (BJ)

Francisco Fullana (c) Felix Broede

Beethoven – Violin Concerto; Ode an die Freude (recomposed, arr. Brossé); Symphony No.7

Dirk Brossé has done it again. Not content with writing some pretty good music of his own, and with building to notable effect on the high artistic and technical standards he inherited from Ignat Solzhenitsyn — his predecessor at the helm of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia — he has also shown a flair for discovering impressive new talent for the orchestra’s roster of guest soloists.

A particularly welcome example back in 2015 provoked me to observe, ‘What is really galling is to realize that, at my advanced age, I cannot realistically look forward to a long acquaintance with Conrad Tao’s achievements as composer or pianist’. The concert now under review offered an equally dazzling, similarly provoking find in the person of the 29-year-old Spanish violinist Francisco Fullana.

Forgive me if I allot relatively little space to discussing the second half of the program. Brossé’s ‘recomposition’ of the famous theme from the Ninth Symphony was delicately and unpretentiously agreeable. The Seventh Symphony, beginning with a spacious first movement complete with exposition repeat, was played with irresistible élan. Characteristic of the performance as a whole was the natural flow of the second movement. it was originally marked Andante, but Beethoven found that performers were treating it too heavily, and he substituted the present Allegretto direction (so that now they tend instead to play it too fast). Under Brossé’s hand, there was no temptation to think about ‘too fast’ or ‘too slow’ – it simply sounded right. The finale was dispatched with what might have been thought excessive speed, but I didn’t feel that way, because excess is the movement’s very essence.

But it was the soloist that provided the unforgettable event of the evening. Having an acquaintance with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto that stretches back to such luminaries as Szigeti, Milstein, and Kulenkampff — taking in closer to our time Oistrakh, Menuhin, Stern, and Schneiderhan — I can recall only a Gidon Kremer performance in the 1980s that challenges retrospective comparison with this one for its combination of lucidity and imagination. The tone Fullana draws from a Guarneri del Gesù violin that used to belong to Fritz Kreisler glints solid gold and possesses sufficient heft to make balance with the orchestral part unproblematic. His intonation is piercingly pure. More remarkably rare is his richly nuanced articulation. He commands a staccato that ranges all the way from quicksilver lightness to something more pointedly incisive. His legato, meanwhile, achieves a heart-easingly Danubian calm. And yet rarer again is the sense of spontaneity he brings to music-making. I found myself repeatedly thinking, ‘Ah, I wonder what he is going to do with the next so-familiar phrase?’ – but the result was never merely willful or alien to the inherent style of the music. It was always exciting or solemn or just sheer fun as each passage in the score demanded.

At only one juncture was I momentarily a tad disappointed. Fullana played the ravishing cantabile theme heard about halfway through the slow movement beautifully enough, in all conscience. But here I missed the endlessly expansive breadth with which Kreisler himself, in his 1936 recording, seemed to be filling every measure to the very brim with music—evoking the soul of bel canto far away from the style’s Italian birthplace, rather as the Austrian tenor Julius Patzak did in his unrivaled recording of ‘Una furtiva lagrima’.

Never mind. At 29, Fullana, who charmed us with his warm and relaxed platform manner and sent us happy into intermission with a brilliant solo-violin arrangement of ‘Asturias’ from Albéniz’s Suite Española No.1 by way of encore, has plenty of time to refine his already formidable musical perceptivity still further. Glitches can always arise to derail a career no matter how promising. But discounting such eventualities I can once again, as in the case of Tao four years ago, declare with confidence that my younger readers will be deriving pleasure and artistic illumination from Fullana’s playing for a long time to come.

Bernard Jacobson

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