Exaggerated claims were made for Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in recent weeks. It was his final orchestral work, composed shortly before he was admitted to an asylum. After his death, Joseph Joachim helped have the work suppressed. The concerto was even believed lost until the score was eventually discovered in Berlin’s Prussian State Library – complete with a 100 year embargo. Its 1937 première was exploited for Nazi propaganda as a great German violin concerto to displace that by (Jewish) Mendelssohn. This evening’s performance by the OAE and Patricia Kopatchinskaja did little to suggest a neglected masterpiece.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja © Marco Borggreve
Patricia Kopatchinskaja
© Marco Borggreve

Fittingly, Schumann’s great friend Brahms had opened the concert with his Variations on a theme by Haydn. Marin Alsop conducted a performance which emphasised the gentle, affectionate side of the work, from a hesitant account of the initial theme (not, as Brahms believed, by Haydn), to a lugubrious 7th variation which belied its grazioso marking. In between, there was some welcome swagger from the horns, while the theme returned joyously at the close.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja is incapable of giving a boring performance. She is one of classical music’s great risk takers but sometimes I wish she would curb her eccentricities. I can take the quirky platform manner – barefoot, singing along to the muscle-flexing orchestral introduction to lock herself into “the zone”, crouching like a panther about to strike – but her musical choices did not always make sense. Her violin’s wiry sound often sounded undernourished, even alongside the OAE’s gut strings. In the meandering slow movement, Kopatchinskaja deliberately skirted with inaudibility with exaggerated pianissimos producing a mere thread of sound. There was fuller tone in the third movement Polonaise, but I cannot help but conclude that this was a very curious performance of a concerto that isn’t actually that good. Joachim, for whom Schumann had written the concerto, dismissed it as the inferior product of an unstable mind, saying that it possessed “a certain exhaustion, which attempts to wring out the last resources of spiritual energy”.

Shortly after completing the concerto, Schumann attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine, the very river that just four years earlier had been inspiration for his five movement E flat major Symphony. The “Rhenish”, as it was dubbed, was Schumann’s fourth symphony (though published as the Third) and was given a stirring performance after the interval to significantly improve this concert’s fortunes. Alsop led a boisterous first movement, a bracing walk along the river. Fine woodwind ensemble lent plenty of character to the playing, easily heard above the lean texture of the strings.

Despite a moment or two of insecurity, the OAE horns signalled confidently in the Sehr mäßig second movement. The gentle viola theme of the third movement provided repose before three trombones intoned a sonorous chorale to represent Cologne Cathedral in the fourth, a mixture of rugged beauty and a sense of mystery. Alsop was most animated on the podium for the finale, dancing as lightly as her mentor, Leonard Bernstein, to usher the symphony to its vigorous close.

Despite its idiosyncrasies, an unusual, engaging concert.