United Kingdom Elgar, Schumann: Vilde Frang (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 9.3.2023. (PCG)
Elgar – Violin Concerto
Schumann – Symphony No.1 ‘Spring’
It may have seemed like a happy idea, but it was tempting fate for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to program Schumann’s Spring symphony for this visit to Cardiff. The South Wales valleys suffered the worst snowfall of the winter earlier in the week. And on the afternoon and evening of the concert we experienced a rainstorm more torrential than anything in all of February. It was perhaps unsurprising that the audience was disappointingly small – but those who let the weather deter them missed a real treat.
Elgar’s Violin Concerto, his largest composition in concerto form, far exceeds in length and complexity both his well-known and loved Cello Concerto and his fragmentary Piano Concerto only recently reconstructed from sketches. Performances of the Violin Concerto are relatively uncommon, and it was interesting to hear two performers from well outside the Elgarian mainstream tackle the work. We had become accustomed to the relatively romantic performing tradition established by Yehudi Menuhin (who recorded the concerto with Elgar) and more recently his pupil Nigel Kennedy. Both adopted with enthusiasm Elgar’s detailed instructions for phrasing and expression (there are no fewer than ten markings for fluctuations in speed in the first eight bars of the solo entry). Then they added innumerable subtleties and refinements of their own.
Here, Vilde Frang kept closely to Elgar’s own score, and was not afraid to float her many high-lying lines in a delicate thread of pianissimo which teetered on the very brink of audibility. The result was absolutely breath-taking – not a cough from the audience! She was superbly aided and abetted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who ensured that the strings outlined a muted cushion of sound on which she could float her heartrendingly expressive tone. Nor was Gražinytė-Tyla afraid of Elgar’s sometimes alarmingly slow metronome marks. There were moments in the slow movement when the muted orchestral strings seemed to be almost suspended in time. There is a notoriously difficult effect in the final movement’s accompanied cadenza, with the orchestral violins strumming their plucked instruments like the memory of distant mandolins. That was beautifully judged, and the ending had all the riot of rumbustious colour and energy that one could wish. There was exemplary balance between Frang and the orchestra. The soloist had all the forthright tone that Elgar demanded to cope with his heavier passages of orchestration (the trombones well in the picture); at the same time, her figuration was delineated with superlative clarity. This may have been in places a slightly unorthodox performance, but it was something very special indeed.
The Schumann symphony seemed somewhat less emotionally charged (how could it be otherwise?) but this was emphatically big-band romantic Schumann, looking forward in passages to Bruckner as well as backwards to Schubert. It was full-bodied and thrilling, even if Gražinytė-Tyla was not always able to disguise the composer’s naïve confidence that his material could be made more exciting by repeating the same basic harmonic sequences faster. She did not hesitate to adjust Schumann’s tempi in the course of a movement, slowing down for more lyrical passages in a manner that made perfect sense even if such subtleties are absent in the score. Moments like the return to the recapitulation in the first movement – real proto-Brucknerian eruption – were exhilarating in a manner than eludes those who cleave to supposedly authentic period practices.
After a performance in Birmingham on 8 March, this was the first concert in an extended tour. Over the next month, Vilde Frang and the CBSO will take Elgar’s Violin Concerto to London Barbican (16 March), Brussels (22 March, together with Schumann’s symphony), Essen (26 March), Hamburg (28 March) and Munich (29 March). Readers in those cities may wish to take note.
Paul Corfield Godfrey