In a programme framed by two central European composers, this was very much a game of two halves. And if one may be permitted to extend the football analogy, there was something of an own goal into the bargain. Among visiting orchestras to the Anvil, few seem to grasp the bright acoustics where uncontrolled dynamics can be a serious health hazard to the unwary. And those equipped with hearing aids sitting directly in front of this orchestra might have reason to regret their use. As guest conductor to the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra, Jan Latham-Koenig’s impulsive movements all too frequently generated seismic volume levels; sometimes exciting, but more often startling.

Jan Latham-Koenig
© Ikon Arts-Edition Peters

Proceedings began with the Four Orchestral Songs by Dora Pejačević, a largely self-taught composer born in Budapest in 1885 to a Croatian-Hungarian Count. During her lifetime she enjoyed considerable success, and her more expansive works, including much fine chamber music and a piano concerto, were performed throughout Central Europe. Her Symphony in F sharp minor was taken up by the conductor Arthur Nikisch who performed it regularly in Leipzig. Of the thirty extant songs by Pejačević, four also exist in a version for voice and orchestra. Imaginatively scored and harmonically opulent, the songs belong to the late Romantic tradition. Apart from the chamber scoring of Verwandlung (solo violin, lower strings, four horns) the dense orchestration of the others (Liebeslied, and Zwei Schmetterlingslieder) caused Croatian soprano Marija Vidović to force her tone with unfortunate results.  

There was a similar degree of strain within Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor, where Tamsin Waley-Cohen was an ardent and sometimes emphatic soloist. She possesses an impressive technique and plays with considerable assurance and her central cadenza was dispatched with authority, but the first movement overall was an overheated affair with powerful tuttis and rarely a glimpse of introspection, its lyricism seemingly unloved. Tenderness emerged fitfully in the Adagio, but Latham-Koenig’s predilection for wayward gestures underlined the movement’s climaxes more than any poetic expression. Things fared better in the energetic finale where Waley-Cohen’s resolute style seemed better suited to a movement whose opening theme was famously dubbed a “polonaise for polar bears”. Her pyrotechnics demonstrated an undoubted virtuosity, but the muddled final bars proved too much for Latham-Koenig. Waley-Cohen returned to the platform for the Sarabande from JS Bach’s Partita in D minor, BWV1004, an exquisite rendition with manicured playing of the highest order. And how refreshing it was to hear a pianissimo, almost haunting in the breathless silence of the audience.

If there had been a half time team talk in the interval, there was a marked improvement in playing. Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 in D major was given a highly charged performance. The joys of spring swept through the opening movement, as spritely woodwinds and whooping horns brought life to its Alpine evocations – all illuminated in a well-paced account with a pulse-raising closing paragraph. The merry peasants of the second movement were in rude health, with Latham-Koenig imparting plenty of swirling beer and Lederhosen and its waltz-like Trio was a beautifully elegant affair. If the funeral march lacked atmosphere, the Klezmer evocation was vividly coloured, as too was the finale which opened in apocalyptic fashion, Latham-Koenig fully realising the sense of hysteria Mahler intended. The movement was not without sensitivity, but it was the triumphant coda, that left the most memorable impression.