Julia Fischer’s spring residency with the LPO ends with magical Elgar

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Elgar, Enescu: Julia Fischer (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 13.4.2022. (CS)

Julia Fischer, Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra

Elgar – Violin Concerto in B minor, Op.61
Enescu – Symphony No.2 in A major, Op.17

Ten double basses! And, what a glorious sight they were, raked on the right-hand side of the Royal Festival stage, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s augmented brass and woodwind sections, and a battalion of percussion – triangle, cymbals, castanets, tam-tam, tambourine, celeste, glockenspiel, harp, and bass, tom, and snare drums – stretching across the expanse behind them. In fact, George Enescu asks for twelve double basses in the score of his Second Symphony (1912-14) along with forty violins, fourteen violas and twelve cellos, but if the LPO didn’t quite marshal those monumental forces, then the vision of such a large mass of musicians was a welcome reminder that, for the time being at least, socially distanced music-making can be pushed into memory.

It was also a visual reminder that Enescu’s Symphony is a massive, complex, sometimes sprawling work, lasting almost an hour, which unfolds through masterly control of contrapuntal and heterophonic techniques (the latter, derived from folk styles, involving mediation between horizontal and vertical layers), and which presents striking, intense contrasts, the whole ‘held together’ by cyclic principles. It was performed only once in the composer’s lifetime, in Bucharest in 1915, and it didn’t go down well. Enescu himself had reservations about the work and planned revisions, but these were never undertaken.

If there is an inherent danger that the Symphony might ramble or stagger under the weight of its own multitude of ideas, then that threat was masterfully pushed aside by Vladimir Jurowski, the orchestra’s Conductor Emeritus, who made lucid the density of the score while sustaining the work’s Romantic sweep. I’ve remarked Jurowski’s astonishing attention to detail before, and his ability to balance maintaining the music’s flow with precise articulation of the minutiae – indeed to integrate the two elements. Here, this discernment reached a sublime level, and it was communicated to the LPO players with wonderful grace and clarity – a quickening of the baton’s flick might garner the slightest surge of warmth, a curl of its tip might momentarily heighten an orchestral colour.

Enescu split his time between Paris and Romania and his music, too, straddled the metropolitan and Moldavian. But, the Symphony is the voice of Enescu the post-romanticist rather than the folklorist – though the first movement, Vivace, ma non troppo, occasionally has an ‘Eastern’ tinge (a hint of Borodin or Rimsky-Korsakov, perhaps?) – and here the opening was brimming with Straussian vigour. Thereafter, though, it was Ravel, alongside Scriabin and Szmanowski, who were most often brought to mind, the Frenchman’s delicate orchestral intricacies in particular. The Andante giusto initially had a brooding quality, but as the quiet, long-breathed melodies wove themselves around each other the mood became more elegiac. There was tension in the finale’s slow introduction, Un poco lento, marziale – perhaps a foreshadowing of the distant drumbeats of war? – but as the incredibly complex polyphony spun its tightly woven webs, the note of optimism accrued and the apotheosis of the close brought a tremendous sense of affirmation and relief.

Elgar’s Violin Concerto was composed two years before Enescu’s Symphony, and the two works share a fortuitous ‘link’. In his autobiography, Unfinished Journey, Yehudi Menuhin – who famously made the first recording of Elgar’s Concerto when he was still a teenager – wrote of the strong impression that Enescu made on him when he was a small child and saw the Romanian virtuoso perform in a concert in San Franciso. Menuhin later studied with Enescu in Paris and acknowledged the strong influence that he had had on his own musical development. Stretching the chain a little further, the soloist on this occasion was the German violinist, Julia Fischer, who, aged eleven, won the 1995 Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition.

This was the final concert in the violinist’s spring residency with the LPO, and Fischer’s lightly worn virtuosity and absolute composure made sure that it was a memorable one. Beneath the veneer of discipline and control lie musical insight and passion, though, and if Fischer’s first entry was assertive and powerful, the tone rich and deep, then there followed myriad moods and colours, each thoughtfully delineated and flawlessly executed. Fischer’s bow action combines fluency and strength – just how did she draw such power and depth from just the few inches of bow at the heel? – and the double-stops sang warmly but incisively. Jurowski drew plenty of heft from the LPO – the forces slightly smaller than in the Symphony – when it was required, building the tension persuasively through the long introduction to the opening Allegro. But, there was restraint, too, and he balanced with, and supported, the solo brilliantly, keeping textures clean so that the details could be cherished.

The orchestral counterpoint in the Andante was clearly etched and shaped with subtlety, the warm string sound complemented by some lovely clarinet playing. Fischer’s phrasing was velvety smooth, but beneath the serenity the movement had a searching quality – a reflectiveness that cast a soft shadow over the lyrical flow. The pensiveness of the ending, as the music dissolved into silence, was magical, evoking a quiet nostalgia, a sense of loss. The ebbs and flows of the Allegro molto were hypnotic as Fischer draw us into music’s self-propelling journey, the racing runs shining cleanly, the double-stops stunningly focused. Then, when we reached the great accompanied cadenza that is the Concerto’s climax, she made the violin’s explorations a spontaneous, contemplative outpouring – almost introspective above the orchestra strings’ fluttering, shuddering tremolando pizzicatos.

This was a terrific evening of music-making in which intellect and instinct worked as one. Fischer and Jurowski clearly enjoyed their partnership, and they continued it in the encore, Jurowski swapping conductor’s rostrum for piano stool to accompany Fischer in a tender lullaby by the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov.

Claire Seymour

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