Nikolaj Znaider gave a most assuredly powerful and lyrical performance of Brahms Violin Concerto. His tone was so lovely that it had one furrowing in the program’s biographical sketch to find out what glorious instrument he was playing. His ‘Kreisler’ Guanerius del Gesu (1741) explains something. What a privilege to hear Brahms on such an exquisitely-crafted piece of 18th-century wood! Znaider himself describes it as having a baritone quality but still a brilliance. With the former, he faced the full orchestra (more often than not shaved to a more manageable size to accommodate the sound of the one soloist). And the brilliance was much in evidence here, and there was that extraordinary sense of ‘right fit’ between the performer and his instrument. One got the sense of an intimate musical relationship of rare quality.

Nikolaj Znaider © Lars Gundersen
Nikolaj Znaider
© Lars Gundersen

He was able to explore the entire geography of the instrument – and Brahms’ wide-spanning range gives him full license to – and the emotional range from the celestial lyricism of the second movement Adagio to the boisterous vigour of the Allegro giocoso. Particularly lovely was the detailing: the way he varied the volume and quality of sound within the same breath of bow, as if a single note were too full of possibility to be merely given monotone treatment. It was also good to hear Jascha Heifitz’s cadenza rather than the more usual Joachim’s one. It was a roguish, wild thing, a veritable furore of stops and schizophrenic changes of direction. The orchestra, for their part, took their time to warm up into the Brahms, and Cristian Măcelaru, visiting conductor tonight, seemed to be pushing their pace. There were moments of stolidity and prose – that gorgeous wind melody that opens the Adagio was not so gorgeous as it might have been – but by the last movement, they had entered more into the spirit of the thing.

The Brahms had been preceded by Gabriel Fauré’s elegant ‘party piece’, the Pavane, Op. 50 (1887). There seems nothing party-like about the work, admittedly, but it was musical fare at a nocturnal soirée given by the Countess Greffulhe in the Bois de Boulogne in 1891, and one didn’t get more social cachet than that in fin-de-siècle Paris. This was a satisfactorily elegant performance, although the end (marked pp) came across as somewhat too loud and therefore crude.

The NSO gave their first performance of Pierre Jalbert’s In Aeternum (2000) tonight and this was the most striking interpretation of the evening. Jalbert’s confessed aim is communication: he seeks to write a piece that “communicates something to an audience”. Here he wishes to communicate something about loss (the death of his brother’s first child at birth was the proximate occasion for the creation of this spiritual work), and something about life (his son’s heartbeat pulses in the second section). It is not that one needs to understand this context to appreciate it, he insists: still the mystery and the sense of hushed transcendence as well as intervals of agony are patent. From the start, Măcelaru insisted on the suspension of time, letting the air resonate with long drawn-out tones. This was effectively done. For that again, the orchestra went all out in the fiercer ‘B’ section in their commitment to musical onomatopoeia: the whipping, pounding, dragging and cracking of sound, especially from the brass and percussion, indicative of severe emotional turmoil. The reprise was full of murmurings and half-complete musical sentences, a suitably mysterious end to this work poised on the threshold dividing life and after-life.

Debussy’s inspiration for La Mer was less the sea itself (no Monet-style plein air composition for him) but Katsushika Hokusai’s woodblock print The Great Wave of Kanagawa which in the cult for all things Japanese voguish among the impressionists and aesthetes of the late 19th century, had become an icon. So much was it Debussy’s reference point that he had it depicted on the first edition of La Mer. The three interconnected sketches which make up the work are fine examples of his capacity to transform and stylize his perception into evocative music, so evocative indeed that film composers have frequently drawn on it as a source. Tonight’s rendition – most especially in its dramatic moments – was largely faithful. The first movement “From Dawn to Noon on the sea” was a subtle exploration of the progression of day over the ocean, through the tones and timbres of the various instruments, with some painterly conducting from Măcelaru, and a bold depiction of noon. The “Play of the Waves” captured effectively the currents and cross-currents in fugitive notes, whilst in the final movement, “Dialogue of Wind and Sea”, Măcelaru built up the turbulence of the sound to capture the elemental force of the swell –the Great Wave even – and it came through with impressive volume, suggesting ferocity and danger of the stormy sea. 

****1