In the first half of the programme, German violinist Julia Fischer played Béla Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 2, accompanied by the fine Tonhalle Orchestra. Ms Fischer is no stranger to the this stage; but it was especially rewarding to hear her play Bartók's highly complex score with such assurance, dynamism and emotive variation, and to enjoy the smiles she gave her fellow musicians left and right when her part gave her pause.

Julia Fischer © Julia Wesely
Julia Fischer
© Julia Wesely

Written just before the outbreak of World War II, at a time when Bartók was gravely unsettled by the prospect of rising Fascism in his native Hungary, this work was premiered at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in 1939. The largely romantic first movement starts with a gentle harp prelude to the violin’s striking cantilena, whose first nine notes are as easily recognizable as the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Ms Fischer’s phrasing was subtle, and her playing full of pathos; indeed, the audience’s devoted silence was blown apart only by the great horns and timpani whose sounds detonate later. Having set the stage for Bartók’s insistence on intervals of fourths, fifths, and seconds, Ms Fischer finished the movement with a forceful upward stroke, her bow held aloft momentarily as if it were an arrow shot upwards.

In the second movement, the concerto’s most stirring element was a brilliantly rendered question and answer session. "Shall we take this? Or this?" Ms Fischer seemed to ask with her line, accompanied by harp, celesta and muted strings. It was here that the soloist stepped closest to the podium, making sure that her unprecedented speed and agility were best integrated. The work’s third, last movement recalled the folk variations of the first, but its tempo was something of a challenge to the orchestra, who got a bit lost once or twice in the muddle. Fortunately, the conductor was able to demonstrably coax a gradual, tightened build-up to the tumultuous finale, where trumpets and horns had a heyday and truly excelled.

An avid globetrotter, the distinguished conductor Charles Dutoit has travelled in all 195 nations of the world, both working with the world’s finest orchestras and feeding his passion for history, political science, and the arts. He also cultivates a role as a music educator. Even thirty years ago in Montreal, he argued that modern works, rather than being presented in concerts of like music, should be “put together with other pieces so the public could be informed and perhaps interested.” And while the Bartók concerto is itself a classic today, its dissonances, modest instances of a-tonality and subtle shaping vastly differed from what was to come.

After the interval, the orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 4 in F minor, which premiered in Moscow in 1878. In the course of composing, this composer, too, was riddled with uncertainly and negative thoughts, but primarily in this instance, over a doomed marriage. Indeed, Tchaikovsky described the first movement’s dominant theme as: Fate, or the “fatal power that prevents one from attaining the goal of happiness”.

Interestingly, the seasoned Dutoit was far more physically animated by the drama of the Russian score than he had been the Bartók, which, he had conducted frontally almost exclusively. The orchestra worked as one under his baton, and here in the Tchaikovsky, key orchestra soloists − particularly the flute, oboe, bassoon, clarinet and horns – enjoyed their chance to shine. In a conversational, rhythmic segment among one pair of instruments, one could almost conjure up somebody skittering about on ice skates. Further, an inventive third movement included swelling and diminishing volumes in the lengthy pizzicato that made the technique sound like a completely new invention.

In sum, the work’s generous share of drama and sparkle was played very well, and fine players consummate skills well deserve accolades. But the symphony itself simply had a little too much of a Hollywood flavour to leave this reviewer breathless: after the dissonances and pathos of the sublime Bartók, the symphonies fanfares, bombastic horns, cowboy calls and march themes, at least to me, simply seemed heady and showy by comparison.