Compelling performance of Britten’s Violin Concerto from Augustin Hadelich and Gemma New

CanadaCanada Firsova, Britten, Holst: Augustin Hadelich (violin), Elektra Women’s Choir, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra / Gemma New (conductor). Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, 12.4..2024. (GN)

Augustin Hadelich © Peter Meisel

Alissa Firsova Die Windsbraut, Op.38
Britten – Violin Concerto, Op.15
HolstThe Planets, Op.32

Violinist Augustin Hadelich’s appearances with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra over the past decade have been a delight, including a wonderful reading of the Tchaikovsky concerto with John Storgårds and a penetrating Bernstein Serenade with Bramwell Tovey. On this occasion, Hadelich moved to the Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto, and it was his best effort yet: a wonderfully integrated and deeply moving reading, superbly articulated throughout. His collaborator was the excellent young New Zealand-born conductor Gemma New, currently presiding over both the New Zealand Symphony and Canada’s Hamilton Philharmonic, who matched the violinist every step of the way. In carrying on a ‘British’ evening, New also gave a good account of herself in Holst’s ever popular The Planets and a contemporary piece by young British/Russian composer Alissa Firsova.

Britten’s Violin Concerto was written in the troubled time of 1938-9, and it is interesting that, unlike the contemporaneous concertos of Sir William Walton and Samuel Barber, it is the only one which registers the tragedy and futility of war, a sentiment that influenced Britten’s creative force throughout his life. Though championed by the likes of Ida Haendel, the concerto remained in relative obscurity until the last two decades, when a proliferation of new performances and recordings have given it a more firmly mainline status. The concerto has strong technical demands but, as a young composer’s work, its principal difficulty is that its structure and content can seem diffuse. In this performance, Hadelich easily overrode the technical hurdles, exhibiting stunning virtuosity and purity of tone throughout, while securing superb concentration and narrative line over the whole. The violinist has been performing this work since 2018 and has recorded it with Cristian Macelaru for Warner in 2022, so we were hearing an interpretation that has been well worked through.

Hadelich’s performances always tend to be on the tight-knit side, and my first impression was that he might have been slightly too quick in the opening ‘Lament’ and the skipping second subject of the first movement. However, the violinist’s drive and intensity turn out to be central both to his achievement of cumulative integration and to the structural contrast he achieves with the passages of darker musing, which he opens out with great inward concentration. For all the sharpness and attack in the more militaristic parts of the first two movements, Hadelich clearly sees the emotional core of the work as residing in the violin’s quiet, soliloquy-like utterances, which are tinged with immense sadness and regret. These occur later in the opening movement and in the long and demanding cadenza of the second, where the violinist also finds the subtlest variety of tonal shadings and dynamics and achieves remarkable suspension of the expressive line.

The sharp, attentive conducting of Gemma New was a real asset and fit with the violinist’s conception. I liked that she made the orchestral gestures convey Britten’s wit, so they really sounded like Britten. This was also true in the later orchestral climaxes, which can often sound like Shostakovich. Here they sounded like Britten. In the closing Passacaglia, she elegantly mined Purcellian roots and brought forward a strong flow that found fleeting moments of optimism to match the violinist’s urgent striving – before the ultimate descent into bleakness. Hadelich was superb in the half-lights of the close, casting a wonderful stillness over the proceedings and conveying inward fragmentation and regret. Perhaps the reason the ending seemed so inevitable, and the work felt so coherent and complete, is that the violinist had already hinted at similar feelings in the musings of the earlier movements. There have been many more demonstrably searing performances of this war-based work, but few that have captured its binding inner tentacles of sadness and regret and the ‘voice’ of the composer better than this one.

Gemma New’s performance of Holst’s The Planets was enjoyable too. The opening Mars is always spectacular, and strong dynamic contrasts were used to propel it forward. The conductor’s sensitivity and charm were also evident in Venus and Mercury, though the execution was not always fluent. Jupiter, perhaps, struck me as too plain and methodical, not sassy or unbridled enough. However, Saturn’s slow tread had genuine strength and Uranus had the right amount of swagger and brashness, while the ethereal Neptune carried its length well, with the offstage Elektra Women’s Choir making a fine contribution. Overall, this reading can be counted as a success for a young conductor. There was plenty of fine detailing and energy present, though she might have coaxed the orchestra to a result that was slightly larger in scale and more evocative. There was also one acoustical concern: with Holst’s organ present, the bass line needs to present strongly and firmly. I often found it somewhat attenuated and muddy here, which softened the edges of this work.

The concert opened with Die Windsbraut (alternately ‘The Tempest’ or ‘Bride of the Wind’) by 37-year-old composer and pianist Alissa Firsova, who moved to the UK from Moscow with her parents when she was a child. One charming retro feature about her compositions is that her works are ordered by opus number, something usually not done by contemporary composers; this work is Op.38. It aims to convey the range of ecstasy and despair in the tempestuous love affair between painter Oskar Kokoschka and Alma Mahler, as depicted in Kokoschka’s eponymous painting (1913-1914).

The work is cogently constructed and effective and has evocative feeling. Leaping strings embedded in a rich and swirling neo-romantic fabric build to an initial complexity which conveys the intensity of the love affair. These alternate with periods of pale-toned, almost mystical, peacefulness. There is a notably ‘New Vienna’ feel in the latter, though as the juxtaposition evolves through another climax and the solo brass appear, the work also seems to pay an implicit debt to Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. A nicely communicative piece, it was well played and did not outstay its welcome.

I might note that this was one of those concerts with side-screens focused on the conductor. Not that I particularly welcome this, but Gemma New reveals herself to be a real dynamo on the podium. Whether it be through a flick of the wrist, elbow or eyebrow, she tries to cue virtually everything in the music, and her arm movements sometimes signal responses on an almost bar-to-bar basis. She gets estimable results so far but, in the long run, I do wonder if she will settle into an equally communicative but less effusive approach. I have no doubt that she will become a cunning interpreter of many styles of music.

Geoffrey Newman

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