Saturday, October 8, 2011

Magical Transitions and the Wisdom of Cutting Away the Superfluous in the Digital Concert Hall

Violinist Nikolaj Znaider mentioned "the wisdom of cutting away the superfluous" during his intermission interview with Berliner Philharmoniker violist Amihai Grosz in a concert broadcast through the Digital Concert Hall.

He was referring to a saying attributed to Michelangelo, but that particular wisdom was the single most striking aspect of his performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Berliner Philharmoniker. Unlike many soloists who have matched wits with this famous concerto, Znaider chose an understated almost conversational framework, choosing to "cut away" the idea that every note in the work must be played molto espressivo. This interpretation was refreshing, and it gave him more room to lift the slowly arcing intensity curves that shape the work. When the time came for passionate outbursts the sound was welcome.

Znaider delivered this performance on the 18th century Guarneri “del Gesu” that Fritz Kreisler played as his primary instrument from 1904-1919. The instrument had an amazingly rich and varied low register and seems to sing with a choir of musical ghosts.

Bernard Haitink was the scheduled conductor, but he needed to cancel due to illness, so the young Slovakian conductor Juraj Valcuha got the call. Valcuha projected confidence and led the orchestra with cerebral elegance throughout the evening.

Valcuha did have trouble holding the Philharmoniker back in several moments of the work, like the opening of the third movement, where the dynamic level was too loud and the sound was too heavy. But Valcuha and Znaider also chose to "cut away" the sense of parody in the finale that many interpretations seek. They played the music with a soulful and sexy dance energy and when the the great dark force that closes the movement swept through it seemed a culmination rather than a contradiction.

Valcuha was able to shift around the program that Haitink had planned, which included the Eroica Symphony. The Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 1 and Weber's Euryanthe Overture were tasty choices, and seemed much more interesting than the previously scheduled fare.

It became an evening of magical transitions.

The Euryanthe Overture opened its development with whispered music for 8 muted solo violins in colors that shifted with smoky edges through several minor keys. Somehow this passage seemed to speak directly to the retransition in the first movement of the Tchaikovsky symphony where an elemental and sparse pattern of syncopated intervals emerged from an otherwise logical development section.

The finale of the Tchaikovsky first symphony has an interpretive challenge. The introduction is long...and it returns at the end of the movement. But Valcuha led us perfectly from this return through another magical transition: rising chromatic lines that slowly pulled the music away, and pointed it with great skill toward the allegro vivo sprint that ended the work in breathless euphoria.

It was a program of works that harmonized. Listen again to the opening of the Sibelius concerto, and then the opening of the first movement of the Tchaikovsky. Right?

Valcuha was not only confident onstage, through some clever concert programming he started his success even before he arrived. That was a magical transition in its own right.

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