Stravinsky was not known for paying compliments to fellow composers. When the name of Vivaldi cropped up in conversation with Robert Craft, he immediately had his put-down ready. “Vivaldi is greatly overrated – a dull fellow who could compose the same form so many times over.” Be that as it may, none other than J.S. Bach considered one of the Red Priest’s works noteworthy enough to turn it into an organ arrangement. This was the Concerto in A minor Op.3 no. 8, part of the twelve-concerto collection entitled L’estro armonico. In this subscription concert given by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester it emerged as a refreshingly upbeat opener as well as a warm-up piece for the evening’s soloist, the Ukrainian-born Vadim Gluzman. He was partnered in the Vivaldi by one of the orchestra’s concertmasters, Stefan Wagner, and given stylish support from a small group of additional players (just a single double bass).

Vadim Gluzman © Marco Borggreve
Vadim Gluzman
© Marco Borggreve

The entire concert had a distinctly Italianate colouring. Though Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major cannot quite disguise its beating Russian heart, it was written on the banks of Lake Geneva and was markedly influenced by Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole (the fandango element in the first movement’s orchestral writing is just one instance of strong southern temperament). Indeed, the lure of La bella Italia can already be felt in the sunny radiance and sensuousness of this concerto two years before its much bolder statement in the form of the Capriccio Italien.

Gluzman dedicated this performance to the memory of Henryk Szeryng, one of the great violin virtuosos from the past who inspired or mentored him (the others being David Oistrakh and Isaac Stern). It is that kind of musical pedigree, and the fact that Gluzman plays a 1690 Stradivarius that once belonged to Leopold Auer (who gave the first performance of the Tchaikovsky), which endowed this reading with a special authoritativeness. Gluzman displays many of the qualities associated with Szeryng: the classical poise, the absence of any attention-seeking histrionics, a breathtaking evenness of line and virtually flawless intonation. It was clear from his very first entry that Gluzman’s focus would be to extend the singing lines and lyrical expressiveness heard earlier in the Vivaldi. Even at the start of the cadenza there was no sense of a soloist about to unleash his great moments. Indeed, a particular feature of this opening movement was the way in which the solo violin was integrated into the overall orchestral sound. Krzysztof Urbański oversaw an attentive and circumspect accompaniment which nonetheless veered occasionally towards the bland. Come the finale, Gluzman provided dazzling dexterity at the outset in the ferocious double-stopping, leaps and dissonances that once led Hanslick, the fiercest and most uncompromising of all Viennese critics, to claim that the violin “is no longer played; it is pulled, torn, drubbed”. Hearing Gluzman’s completely natural phrasing and assured delivery it is hard to see any validity in such extreme critical opinion.

In terms of its tonality, Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony is a real curiosity. Unlike Beethoven’s Fifth, for example, where the minor key is turned irrevocably towards the major in the finale, all the spills and thrills of Mendelssohn’s concluding saltarello remain stubbornly in the minor. How to make sense of it all? Since there is a reminiscence of the opening movement’s principal theme just before the symphony ends, is it perhaps evidence of the composer’s heavy heart at his enforced leave-taking from a land of sunshine and high spirits? One can but speculate.

I did wonder quite early on in Urbański’s performance whether he was determined to haul Mendelssohn back to the city of his birth and underline the classical proportions of this symphony – the third movement owes nothing to Beethoven’s development of the Scherzo but is a resurrected Minuet and Trio – since it lacked all the effervescence you expect from an Asti spumante. Conducting from memory, he did little to indicate that Mendelssohn was as much a Romantic as a classical composer. The tempo for the third movement avoided the con moto marking and left much of the music becalmed, so that the contrasting Trio section – with its pre-echoes of Shakespeare’s fairyland, not to mention the dark forests explored by Weber – failed to make its mark. I listened in vain for the delicious wind trills that should ripple through the textures like shivers of excitement.

Was it the hall’s notoriously fickle acoustics which left me dismayed at the results yet again? Urbański certainly made use of dynamic extremes, often at the lower end of the scale, and when the strings were playing at little more than a whisper the effects were impressive. But the lack of definition in louder passages, the boominess of the timpani and the dissipation of energy made this Italian sadly unmemorable. La dolce vita? More a case of Il dolce far niente.