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Janáček, Brahms, Dvořák, Joshua Bell (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra/ Sir Charles Mackerras, Royal Festival Hall, Thursday 24 June 2004 (AN)


Janáček Taras Bulba (23 mins)

Brahms Violin Concerto in D, Op.77 (38 mins)


Dvořák Symphony No.6 in D, Op.60 (41 mins)

I was in no mood for humouring as I took my seat at the Royal Festival Hall: the Euro 2004 ‘England v Portugal’ football match was on and I was missing it. In hindsight, I might have squirmed just a little bit harder in front of the television, though admittedly the unholy alliance of a distressing performance by star soloist Joshua Bell and a less than convincing Janáček opening item took a heavy toll.

Given Mackerras’s prowess in all things Czechoslovakian – the distinguished conductor studied in Prague and is defined by his specialisation in the Czech repertory – Janáček’s Taras Bulba was disappointing. However, it was less the fault of the meticulous baton than of complete disregard for it: with the exception of the ‘Death of Ostap’ middle movement, a perturbing lack of textural cohesiveness and dynamic contrast made a poor spokesperson for the violent subtext of this loosely programmatic conception. Of course, there were successful passages in the outer movements, and none more so than the culminating bars of ‘The Prophesy and the Death of Taras Bulba’ which delighted in spectacular, full-bodied entries against a subtly emerging organ.

The Brahms Violin Concerto that followed is not one to dwell on. Joshua Bell is a brilliant violinist and it was therefore extremely painful to watch him fall flat on his face. Immediately obvious was an affected overacting that attempted to hide technical insecurities: the zeal of Mr Bell’s histrionics made no contribution to either sound or fingerwork. The Allegro non troppo and Allegro giocoso witnessed finger-fudging and missed notes but most disturbing was the soloist’s tense posture and firmly-clamped fist that suffocated the Gibson Stradivarius’s voice-box, induced poor intonation and caused regrettable casualties to the bow – bruised and battered by the end of the first movement, it collapsed across the fingerboard but was lucky to salvage a few hairs at all by the end of the concerto!

Half time could not have arrived sooner, and what followed was second to none. Here was the Philharmonia we all know and love. Mackerras, with his finger on the pulse, conjured the Dvořák to perfection. The playing was energetic, incisive and emotional. A fluidity of tempo rested naturally on the authentically inflected orchestral tongue. Violins stood a fraction ahead of the crowd and propelled forward the relentless momentum and passion.

Singing out bravely their heartfelt theme, the violins charmed the Adagio and set an example for the nostalgic return in the cello section. This movement was not without surprise however, and Mackerras directed daring trespasses into sinister territories and sinful blues dissonances. Nothing stopped the tightly knit Philharmonia from attacking head-on the challenges of Dvořák’s manipulative score. Mackerras hit a sexy syncopation in the midst of the feisty Scherzo with a flick of his right hand and the orchestra danced with him.

The Finale was at first hazy and then gradually gained definition, taking the almighty form of a whole host of textures and ideas that at one point pitted cheerful violins against sobering brass statements. And all this inner mayhem geared towards an explosive finish. Beats a penalty shoot-out any day.

Aline Nassif

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