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Aaron AVSHALOMOV (1894-1965)
Hutongs of Peking
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Adagio from Sonata No.1, BWV1001
Liu TAINHUA (1895-1932)
A Wonderful Night (arr. Huang Yijun)
Maxim Vengerov (violin)
Shanghai Symphony Orchestra/Long Yu
rec. August 2017, Concert Hall of KKL Lucerne
16:0 NTSC, PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, Region Code 0
ACCENTUS MUSIC DVD ACC20440 [110 mins]

For their appearance at the 2017 Lucerne Festival, the Shanghai Symphony brought three works and a charismatic soloist under their conductor Long Yu. This filmed production carries no extras – no interviews, no biographies, and no architectural montage of the hall or the city – but focuses securely on the evening’s concert with excellent direction from Michael Beyer. The camera positions are finely judged, the sectional shots always apposite and never intrusive and it’s been produced with authority by Paul Smaczny.

The concert begins with Aaron Avshalomov’s 1931-32 Hutongs of Peking, a symphonic poem ‘about the sounds and voices of Chinese streets’ – a kind of cousin to Delius’ Paris or Elgar’s Cockaigne. A Caucasian Jew, Avshalomov was a fascinating character, an essentially self-taught composer with a compelling interest in the sounds of the Far East, who studied medicine in Zurich (briefly music too) and lived in China between 1918 and 1947. From 1929 he was based in Shanghai so it’s wholly appropriate that the orchestra took his tone poem to the festival, given that it explores Chinese tones and colours cast in a broadly late Romantic-impressionistic palette. With prominent piano and percussion and the trumpets, open or muted, making their presence strongly felt the grandeur and possibly also slight unease of a packed cityscape are evocatively promoted. Those Chinese scales register as part of the fabric of the tone poem and not at all as touristic vignettes.

Maxim Vengerov, dressed in a grey suit with black shirt but without tie, is the soloist in the Tchaikovsky Concerto, a warhorse of his for decades. As always, he plays with eyes shut, only opening them to co-ordinate ensemble at the start and end of movements. Facial expression is overt but not extreme, his movements perfectly natural and a model of simplicity. Other violinists, prone to feats of fishing, fencing or perambulation would do well to emulate the focused relaxation of his posture. There has been a tendency to take this work slower and slower over the years – Joshua Bell is pretty a market leader here, slower even than Nigel Kennedy – and Vengerov takes a similar kind of approach. His first movement, like Bell’s, stretches for almost 19 and a half minutes but unlike Bell he manages to connect phraseology convincingly enough to ensure that momentum doesn’t sag. With Long Yu undoing the top button of his tie-less shirt, and dispensing with his baton, both men explore the Canzonetta with obvious pleasure; the camera shots here are particularly commendable. Baton back, Yu accompanies the finale with discipline, and Vengerov’s refined, tonally rich playing leads triumphantly to the finishing line. He receives applause with delightful, unaffected modesty; perfect demeanour. His encore is the Adagio from Bach’s First Sonata, BWV101, heard in rapt silence.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony follows. This is a watchful, resilient reading that steers a pathway between extremes. It has the advantage of showcasing some of the excellent principals. Guillaume Molko, the French concertmaster – one of a several non-Chinese players in the orchestra - takes the second movement solo with commendable eloquence; the clarinet principal is equally fine, as is the first bassoonist, the string choirs excellently drilled. In fact, the orchestra, which is the oldest in Asia and celebrates its 140th birthday – it’s far older than many Western orchestras – shows an all-round quality. At the end Yu looks desperately tired, but soon recovers to offer a sweet encore, Liu Tianhua’s A Wonderful Night in Huang Yijun’s arrangement.

This was the first time a Chinese orchestra had performed at the festival. It’s recently been signed by DG and this looks likely to propel it to even greater international notice. The booklet has been classily compiled and has German, English, French and Chinese notes with well selected black and white photographs of the concert, dressing room, and Chinese cityscapes..

Jonathan Woolf

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