Memorable Sibelius from Emmanuel Tjeknavorian and Michael Sanderling

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Sibelius, Brahms: Emmanuel Tjeknavorian (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra / Michael Sanderling (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 23.2.2020. (CS)

Emmanuel Tjeknavorian (c) Uwe Arens

Sibelius – Violin Concerto in D minor Op.47
Brahms – Symphony No.4 in E minor Op.98

In 2015, at 20 years-of-age, Austrian violinist Emmanuel Tjeknavorian won the prize for the best interpretation of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto at the International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition, and second prize in the Competition overall.  Now, five years later, and just two days before this concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra, Tjeknavorian has released his first orchestral disc with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony under the baton of Pablo Gonzáles, on the Edel Kultur Berlin Classics label: the Sibelius Concerto, naturally, alongside a Concerto by his composer/conductor father, Loris Tjeknavorian.

So, Tjeknavorian’s arrival on the Royal Festival Hall stage was excitedly anticipated.  And, he didn’t disappoint.  This was a performance that surprised, enlightened, provoked, and most of all, thrilled in equal measure.  I spent much of the performance trying to work out how Tjeknavorian achieves such a union of strength and subtlety.  His tone is characterful, and the fluency of his bow action brought to mind the sustained suppleness and strength of an elite long-distance runner: there’s not a strained or overly exertive movement.  Similarly, there’s not an inch of bow that doesn’t send the sound ringing out, and however slowly the bow is moving there’s no sign of pressure or tension in the right arm.  It looks effortless.  But, while Tjeknavorian presents an assured presence and he’s not afraid – in fact, seems determined – to take a few risks, he’s no showman.  There’s an inner stillness about his playing, however exuberant the upward bow flourishes or the impeccable virtuosic exploits.  There was deep quietude in this performance of the Sibelius Concerto: I really heard and felt the poetry of the work, its Brahmsian lyricism.

This was in no small part thanks to the sensitivity of conductor Michael Sanderling, who encouraged the Philharmonia to sing warmly from the shadows, and only occasionally step more assertively into the light – which they did with unwavering eloquence and craft.  At the opening of the Allegro moderato the oscillating violins were not so much a whisper as a rustle of air, through which Tjeknavorian’s line floated; the full vibrato did not disturb the evenness of line, and was used with delicate nuance to heighten the expression.  It’s easy to come up with clichéd topographical images in relation to Sibelius’s music, but here I really did sense a bird easefully circling in a sun-shimmering sky above glistening ice.

But, Tjeknavorian had many colours and textures in his arsenal.  He raced up the G-string and made it not so much growl as glow.  The unaccompanied arpeggiated passage early in the first movement had both the pristineness and the strange, almost wild magic of a Baroque fantasia by, say, Biber.  We needed the cellos and double basses, melodising lightly but intently, to bring us back down to earth.  Those moments in this Concerto where the harmonic shifts or resolutions seem to be like tectonic plates sliding into their ‘rightful place’ didn’t quite explode with orchestral sunlight as they can do, but this kept Tjeknavorian in the foreground.  There was glorious warmth and freedom in the surging double-stopped 6ths of the Largamente and then surprising temporal flexibility in the descending string of octaves.  The stirring string theme surged towards the Allegro molto but was halted by the solo violin’s tight trills, magical and mysterious.

The cadenza was spellbinding: never rushed, flexibly structured, the double-stopping rich-toned, the voice-leading crystalline.  It seemed as ‘pure’ as Bach’s unaccompanied sonatas and partitas, and had the same architectural majesty.  The woodwind, especially the bassoons and clarinets, were perfectly attuned to Tjeknavorian’s spirit when the orchestra re-entered.  Sanderling did let the Philharmonia off the leash in the recapitulation, pushing forward, driven by a timpani heartbeat seemingly striving for catharsis.  But, gentle horns and clarinets assuaged; in the coda the lower strings were as light as the dulcet flute.  The ensemble between soloist and orchestra was impeccable, and the closing cadence was taut and surprisingly brusque.

The woodwind were sweet-toned at the start of the Adagio di molto, which was not in fact so ‘di molto’: the tempo flowed and there was a sense of assurance and contentment – an underlying peace – in the violin’s first slowly climbing and circling melody.  The episode where string unisons are energised by the timpani did not sound ominous or dangerous; rather they were a powerful upwelling of the spirit from which the solo violin itself emerged. Again, the voice-leading in the double-stopped episodes was seamless, the lyricism gentle but supported by a core of steel.

The Allegro definitely was ma non tanto – and all the better for it.  The theme danced – Tjeknavorian’s lovely ‘tucked-in’ bow strokes seemed to trick ear and eye – and the violins matched his lightness in their pianissimo ricochets.  The orchestral ostinatos were a taut whisper, so that Tjeknavorian could whizz through virtuosic up-bow spiccato runs and scalic flourishes without ever needing to force the sound.  And, those long Sibelian orchestral pedals were less of a grinding tension than a hopeful anticipation of release – a release which final came in the joyful conclusion of the final bars.

The encore?  An Armenian folksong.  Those wondering why, can find the answer here.

Michael Sanderling was replacing the originally announced Yuri Temirkanov, and, no disrespect at all to Termirkanov, but I was glad to have Sanderling on the podium for Brahms’s Fourth Symphony.  The same restraint and balance that we heard from the Philharmonia in the Sibelius, the same sureness of structure and clarity of vision that we witnessed from Sanderling in the Concerto, was fully evident here.

Sanderling really ‘gets’ the way Brahms’s rhythms are its architecture, and nowhere was this more apparent than in the Allegro giocoso where the opening theme that can sometimes seem overly robust was lithe and buoyant.  Motifs and passages tugged and swayed against each other, but the innate elasticity of the rhythms made the overall structure stronger.  And, once again, the conductor crafted a transparency that enabled us to really hear such details, often submerged, as the triangle interjections as the violas wriggled quietly.

The beautifully relaxed horn theme that opened the Andante moderato established the easy lilt and relaxed ambience of the second movement.  The Philharmonia woodwind had their moment to shine supported by really tender and rounded string pizzicatos.  This was truly Brahms when the sun is shining and all is right with the world.

Framing these movements were insightful and well-judged interpretations of the Allegro non troppo and the closing passacaglia.  Sanderling was in no hurry in the first movement, which seemed to commence in medias res, gently, nudgingly, questioningly.  There was a sense of breadth that anticipated the ambitious span of the whole symphony, but Sanderling paced the temporal and dynamic ebbs and flows brilliantly, so we were always moving forwards.  The Philharmonia fiddlers had a terrific evening, and the sensitivity of their playing throughout was exemplified by the elegant presence of their opening motifs here – these were tender, not portentous, sighs.  There was a ‘chamber’ quality about the ensemble: the cellos relished their striving theme which they then passed graciously to the first fiddles.  So often, as themes were shared and transferred, it was as if someone from on high was shining a spotlight across the orchestra illuminating their shared development of Brahms’s material.  Such illumination was possible because of the precision and clarity of the complementary textures in counterpoint with each other.  Rarely does something so complex seemed so clear, something so dense so joyously light.

As so to the Allegro energico e passionate which was assertive but never bombastic, characterised by the spirit of flexible exchange, and Sanderling’s unwavering rhythmic structuring, that had been at the heart of the whole evening’s music-making.

Claire Seymour

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