The two grand Romantic statements that Valery Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic selected for the first of their performances at the 25th edition of the George Enescu Festival are rarely played together. Nonetheless, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony, composed only a few years apart, have other traits in common. Both were premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic (albiet that Bruckner’s symphony was 18 years after he completed the score, under the baton of Gustav Mahler). And both were initially met with disdain by Eduard Hanslick, arguably the most respected critic of the time. “For a while, it moves musically, and not without spirit. But soon vulgarity gains the upper hand. The violin is no longer played; it is pulled, torn, shredded,” was his verdict on the concerto. He was even harsher in his appreciation of the two movements of Bruckner’s Sixth (the only ones publicly performed during the composer’s life), referring to “barely understandable platitudes, empty and dull patches”.

Leonidas Kavakos, Valery Gergiev and the Munich Philharmonic
© Enescu Festival | Andrei Gîndac

Now, at least Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is considered a staple of the repertoire. The question for violinists has become not how to overcome its enormous technical difficulties, but how to bring fresh perspectives to a beloved score that any music lover has heard many times. For Leonidas Kavakos, one of the greatest violinists of his generation, the key laid in downplaying the importance of virtuosic passages and emphasising instead the beauty of the folk-inspired melodies. His pianissimos were ravishing, not only in the second movement, but also in the occasional moments of tranquility in the third. The collaboration with the orchestra did not exactly start off on the right foot. If the timbral balance between violin and orchestra was without issues, there were a few rhythmical discrepancies. Also, given the mediocre acoustical environment, several tutti moments veered towards the bombastic. Nevertheless, the second and third movements brought exquisitely fluid interplays between violin and various combinations of woodwinds. Soloist and conductor handled the gradual rhythmical changes in the meno messo rallentando section of the Finale with remarkable naturalness. Even if it is difficult to not be impressed by Kavakos’ pyrotechnics in the last movement, the outstanding trait of his playing is actually the purity of his sound, something he proved again in his encore: the Loure from Bach’s Partita no. 3 in E major.

Valery Gergiev conducts the Munich Philharmonic
© Enescu Festival | Andrei Gîndac

Bruckner’s Sixth is not often performed. Its neglect is undeserved, the score being imbued with all the same ingredients that have made his other major symphonies more successful: the pulsating ebb and flow, the successive peaks preceded by what seem to be Sisyphic climbs, the phenomenal orchestration full of forward-hinting dissonances, the dances oscillating between grave and airy, folksy and elegant. In a tight reading, with beautifully judged tempos and balanced textures, Gergiev minimised any longueurs, drawing resplendent musical arches, despite several themes in this symphony having a less than clear shape. Transitions were almost always organic. He brought forward several distinguishing features of the score from the atypical sonata form of the second movement to the ubiquitous presence of the 2+3 rhythmic motif. There were brilliant individual contributions, especially those of the recently appointed Principal Oboe, Andrey Godik. Overall, this interpretation succeeded balancing those opposite Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies that mark many Romantic scores, including the previously heard violin concerto.