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S & H Concert Review

Rheinberger, Brahms, Tchaikovsky: Nikolaj Znaider (vln), Denis Shapovalov (cello), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, RFH, 7 November, 2001 (MB)


This year sees the Principality of Liechtenstein and the cities of London and Munich honour the life and work of Josef Gabriel Rheinberger, a contemporary of the two other composers programmed in this concert. Often transparently similar to Bruckner in how he lead his life, Rheinberger’s music suffered the same fate as Bruckner’s – undervalued in his lifetime and largely ignored thereafter. There the comparison ends because while Bruckner developed his own sound world, Rheinberger looked back in his inimitable style of conservatism to Mozart, Mendelssohn and Beethoven. The Passacaglia for Orchestra Op. 132b is by no means a negligible work, even if it sounds more than reminiscent of Bach’s own C minor Passacaglia (a very much greater piece of music). It was here given a resonant, and somewhat taut performance by the London Philharmonic – a perfect vehicle for this orchestra’s magnificent string tone. Hearing the glowering double basses made one grateful that Rheinberger had transposed the work up a semitone in order to accommodate them.

Brahms’ Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Op. 102 is the composer’s last orchestral work – and still one his most underplayed. It is notoriously difficult to bring off in performance: it lacks the sheer physicality of either of the piano concertos and the lyricism of the violin concerto, not to mention the structural power of the symphonies. Yet, this performance under the 26 year old violinist Nikolaj Znaider [left] and the 27 year old cellist Denis Shapovalov was a revelation. Perhaps Shapovalov’s tone is on the small side, yet there was no denying the astringent power he brought to the opening solo. Znaider himself has a much broader tone, sweeping powerfully over the orchestra, but he is also capable of the most incandescent shading – pianissimos were pure, his bow control utterly complete. What made this such a magical performance was the interplay between the two soloists – leaning towards each other as if listening in on a whisper, gregarious when many in this work are reserved, and delivered with the kind of panache which belies the work’s technical difficulties. This was undoubtedly a young men’s performance and unforgettable.

As was The London Philharmonic’s stunning performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, electrifyingly conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste. Apart from one moment towards the end of the andantino this was a faultlessly played performance: the sheer audacity of the brass was mesmerising, and the strings were as full bodied as this work ideally requires. Nowhere was the orchestra better than in the scherzo – the pizzicato strings as nimble as a Prussian army, the woodwind during the Trio pedantic in their peasantry, the brass restrained to the extent of a whisper. When the Finale arrived it did so like a bolting horse and the articulation was thrilling. Strings scattered their notes like dominoes and the brass’ recapitulation of the opening theme showed no sign of flagging in its splendour. It was a rich performance – both in ideas and in playing.

Marc Bridle

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