It has been argued that introversion is especially heightened among those working in creative fields. Latvians, who frequently express a preference for solitude, regard creativity as important to self-identity. Before the second concert in the Jūrmala Festival I spent a little while musing on the ability of a country with not even two million inhabitants to go on producing new generations of talented performers eager to communicate their love of music to local audiences and beyond, and later win acclaim on the international stage. Here, the violinist Kristīne Balanas joined the British-born pianist George (or Džordžs, as he appeared in local billings) Harliono in an unashamedly crowd-pleasing programme.

Kristīne Balanas © Pauls Zvirbulis
Kristīne Balanas
© Pauls Zvirbulis

Balanas is no stranger to British audiences, having previously given the UK premiere of the Weinberg concerto. It is often overlooked that Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor was the last large orchestral work he wrote, having struggled for six years to fulfil a promise he gave to his longtime friend and collaborator, Ferdinand David, with problems from the very outset. “The beginning,” the composer declared, “gives me no peace.” This staple in the fiddler’s diet is astonishing in all kinds of ways, not least because its seamlessness suggests an ease of composition belied by historical fact. Mature it may be, but it also retains a preternatural freshness and geniality very close to the teenager’s Octet and the miracle of his overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There is no reason why this concerto should be the exclusive preserve of young performers, but listening to a soloist like Balanas you were quickly reminded of the powerful combination of carefree spirit and passionate intensity running like double veins through the entire work. Youth, she seemed to be saying, always means onwards and upwards. The tone of her 1787 Antonio Gragnani instrument was not especially sweet or ingratiating, but its steely edge gave the performance an immediate urgency.

Sadly, the support she received from the Jūrmala Festival Orchestra under Ainārs Rubiķis was not on the same level. The ensemble used for all three works in this concert was modest in proportions, grounded on four cellos and four basses, yet with the wrong kind of feathery lightness in texture, though in the central Andante the pizzicato accompaniment of the lower strings sounded very appropriately just like the quickening of a heartbeat. The wind section made more of an impact, with sensitive duetting between flutes and Balanas in the first movement. However, in the transition from this opening Allegro molto appassionato to the slow movement there was a strange hiatus in the all-important bassoon solo. Elsewhere too the playing had a tired feel to it.

This had been apparent even earlier in Weber’s Oberon overture which the orchestra, despite an expressive clarinet solo, plodded its way through. What should have been a magical experience was constrained by the open-air setting. Inevitably, thoughts of a Romantic woodland scene were quickly dispelled by the cawing and squawking of the resident seagulls and the constant rustle of a ventilation system in the background. Even enhanced amplification failed to dampen other extraneous noises, like the removal of crates of bottles from the refreshment area during the second half.

George Harliono © Pauls Zvirbulis
George Harliono
© Pauls Zvirbulis

Harliono has already appeared with the Mariinsky Orchestra under Gergiev, so he has already been making waves. Having heard the great Martha Argerich less than a month ago in the celebrated Tchaikovsky warhorse, I was fearful of his chances of equalling, never mind eclipsing, that experience. I needn’t have worried. There are of course many ways to ride a horse and, as equine specialists will tell you, these animals are individuals in their own right. This version of the B flat minor reminded me more of a pet filly, responding appreciatively to gentle stroking, rather than any death-defying heroics on the battlefield. At least in the opening movement, where Harliono seemed to be savouring each separate note, taking all the time in the world to stress the composer’s melodic train of thought and poetic line. When those crashing double octaves came, they resembled less a fusillade of rapid gunfire than a powerful statement of logical punctuation. It is also rare to witness repeated smiles of satisfaction playing on a soloist’s lips, not out of any smugness, but confirmation that at that particular moment in time there was no other way of playing all those notes with such conviction. Perhaps inspired by Harliono’s complete identification with this work, the orchestra under Rubiķis raised their game somewhat, though without matching the intensity of his playing. There was a Mendelssohnian lightness to the central Andantino and, to continue the equine imagery, by the time the finale was launched, it was like watching the massed cavalry appearing over the crest of a hill, their hooves pounding the ground imperiously. The great warhorse lives to fight another day.


Alexander Hall's press trip to Latvia was funded by Dzintari Concert Hall

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