A compelling Brahms Violin Concerto from Stefan Jackiw in Vancouver

CanadaCanada Various: Stefan Jackiw (violin), Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Otto Tausk (conductor). Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 2.6.2023. (GN)

Stefan Jackiw © Sangwook Lee

Chang – ‘Precipice’
Brahms – Violin Concerto in D major Op.77
Vaughan WilliamsFantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis
Respighi – Pines of Rome

For all the difficulties of the preceding years, it is nice to be able to say that the current VSO season proceeded essentially without interruption or incident. This closing concert offered a fine tribute: New York-based Stefan Jackiw provided a truly involving Brahms Violin Concerto, while Maestro Otto Tausk led well-appointed accounts of Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia and Respighi’s Pines of Rome. Closing the season with the latter work carries on a long VSO tradition, initiated by conductor Laureate Kazuyoshi Akiyama as far back as the 1970s.

Stefan Jackiw first appeared here with the Vancouver Recital Society in a duo concert with pianist Max Levinson in 2010, where I remarked that ‘he is capable of producing much electricity as well as a wonderfully-controlled inward feeling in quieter passages’. In his October 2016 performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with conductor Jun Märkl and the VSO, I noted that the reading featured ‘some of the slowest tempos I have ever heard in the opening movement. These established a suspended “reverie”, and gave Jackiw the opportunity to bring out the most poignant expression, which he did superbly, establishing a glowing ardour over the whole’.

The current Brahms concerto had many of the above characteristics, featuring a combination of scintillating attack and probing inwardness, all wrapped in a strong narrative line. Jackiw’s approach seems to operate at two distinct settings: the more dramatic and active parts of the score delivered with silver-toned virtuosity, passion and great clarity, with the more lyrical, inward passages taken much more slowly and quietly, inviting us into a special personal world where time almost stands still.

So it was in the opening movement: after the commanding strength of the soloist’s first entry, both tempo and tone-colour were pulled back as soon as the swinging cantabile theme arrived, allowing Jackiw to spin out a most beautiful feeling of intimacy and repose. The alternating pattern was maintained throughout the movement: virtuosic and passionate on one hand, and sublimely-beautiful and almost ethereal on the other. But the playing was always communicative: for all the tempo fluctuations, the imagination and consistency of the violinist’s approach riveted one’s attention. The cadenza was stunning in execution. The opening oboe motive of Adagio probably started faster than its marked speed, but the violinist soon turned it into a particularly heartfelt reverie at slower speeds. There seemed to be an almost hypnotic dimension to the way individual notes were suspended to convey momentary changes in feelings. While the first two movements could be regarded as eye-opening, the finale was straighter and more in tempo, and Jackiw’s superb articulation brought out all the right type of dancing energy to take the work home in joy.

The performance was an intriguing experience, featuring the highest level of violin artistry. Maestro Tausk and the orchestra brought strong backing to it, especially in facilitating the different tempos involved. Perhaps the only critical question is whether Jackiw’s approach always provided insights into Brahmsian expression, rather than his own. For me, Brahms’s ruminative style of the 1870s is possibly riper in tone and more sentient in its quiet moments, and does not require as extreme tempo reductions to articulate. Others may not register any concerns over self-consciousness or style, suggesting that the idiosyncrasies in the violinist’s approach spring from clear intelligence and sensitivity, and serve to expand our appreciation of the range and emotional depth of the work. And, I admit, there was little feeling of contrivance here: the violinist clearly has his finger on the nerve ends of the work. I am very interested to see how well Jackiw’s approach would fare as a recording. So, someone, please record it!

The second half of the program was rewarding as well. Maestro Tausk has not performed many English works so far, but he gave a thoroughly creditable account of Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia. Most important, he allowed the subsidiary orchestra and the soloists to probe the space and mystery in the work between its strong, engulfing string textures, pacing everything with an awareness of the whole. In Respighi’s Pines of Rome, the conductor’s eye for colour and rhythm almost had a Gallic feel, notable in the opening movement, ‘I Pini di Villa Borghese’, and at the very beginning of the final triumphal march, ‘I Pini della Via Appia’, where the opening murmurs had a touch of Ravel’s La Valse in them. The naturalistic third movement, ‘I Pini del Gianicolo’, notable for its (questionable?) artificial bird calls, featured beautifully free and sensual clarinet playing from principal Jeanette Jonquil. The closing march turned out as the true sonic spectacular it is supposed to be, with rhythms strongly etched, strings incisive and the brass crowning the event. With UBC professor Dorothy Chang’s short composition ‘Precipice’ starting the evening off, this was one of the more rich and varied experiences the VSO has offered this year, and the orchestra did it proud.

Geoffrey Newman



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