In recent years, the virtouso violinist Nikolaj Znaider has diverted some of his attention to conducting. Mentored by such esteemed figures as the late Sir Colin Davis and Valery Gergiev, he made his London conducting debut in 2011 with the London Symphony Orchestra. In this concert with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, he faced the formidable challenge of Mahler’s groundbreaking First Symphony.

Nikolaj Znaider © N. Razina
Nikolaj Znaider
© N. Razina

Znaider is a genial presence on the podium, conducting with the minimum of fuss and very precise gestures, if a little stiffly. He opted to seat the viola section on the outside right of the stage, a tradition favoured by Karajan most notoriously and one that has arguably little musical or practical merit beyond bringing the bass stringed instruments into the heart of the orchestra.

The impressive first half of the concert opened with Mendelssohn’s swashbuckling overture to Ruy Blas, commissioned for a performance of Victor Hugo’s tragic play. Mendelssohn was said to have hated the play but composed a pleasing overture nevertheless. Scoreless, Znaider conjured secure opening brass chords and a tightly sprung argument from the strings. The orchestra was well balanced throughout and there was a welcome lightness in the playing of the reduced string forces.

The lightness of orchestral texture was also welcome in Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto, in which large segments of the first movement feature hefty orchestral interjections. Soloist Ingrid Fliter’s commanding entry several minutes into the work seemed startling against the backdrop of ghostly quiet strings. What impressed me most about her playing was the range of colours that she summoned from the ubiquitous Steinway grand, an instrument that can be overly bright in the wrong hands.

This was a captivating performance from start to finish. No surprise, perhaps, given the praise garnered for Fliter’s recent Chopin recordings. I found myself frequently mesmerised by her dancing fingers and her ability to go from one end of the dynamic spectrum to the other in the space of a single phrase, making it all seem so natural. The rhythmic click of Fliter’s heels on the stage here and there was not too much of a distraction and, ironically, sounded all of a piece in the final mazurka-influenced movement alongside the col legno bow slapping of the string players. A special mention must be given to the principal bassoonist for the duets with the soloist in the lovely second movement. It was to Znaider’s credit that he allowed various wind soloists freedom to lead passages such as these. He proved a fine accompanist, sticking with Fliter’s every twist and turn of rubato.

Fliter went down a storm with the Birmingham audience and her encore, the final movement of Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata had all the qualities that we had come to expect after her performance of the Chopin concerto.

The performance of Mahler’s First Symphony proved something of a disappointment in the second half. Znaider was once again without a score. Having no score between conductor and orchestra allows the former to constantly connect and engage with musicians with the reasonable expectation that he or she will frequently have something meaningful to convey. I did not feel that this was often the case in this distinctly two-dimensional performance. A sense of wonder at spring’s awakening of nature in the first movement seemed to be lacking, despite the high quality of playing in the tricky opening section.

There was no shortage of fireworks throughout the symphony and the Scherzo was particularly brilliant in this respect. String players dug deep to give this Ländler a real rustic quality. The trio was taken quite swiftly but Znaider allowed some rubato into the phrasing to give a pleasing lilt. The third movement was, well, really rather nice, beginning as it did with a somewhat manicured double bass solo. Alas, “nice” is not a word I would normally associate with a funeral march. The klezmer-like dance episodes were rather jolly, too, where one might expect elements of melancholy or sardonicism.

The performance was well played, though I didn’t sense that the musicians were playing out of their skins. There were some nice touches: horn trills were admirably bracing, the menacing tread of the bass drum in the first movement development was suitably chilling and the strings deeply moving in between climaxes in the final movement. The more brilliant aspects of this symphony certainly made an impact and the performance came to a rousing finish, aided by an upstanding horn section. However, in an era when performances of Mahler’s symphonies are in ample supply I think audiences should expect them to demonstrate more in the way of insight and character than this one did.

***11