Darkness has descended the heart of Turku as people gathered at the concert hall to see the Hungarian violinist Barnabás Kelemen conducted by Christian Kluxen, a dynamic duo showcasing both their charisma and virtuosity in Shostakovich and Nielsen.

Barnabas Kelemen © Tamas Dobos
Barnabas Kelemen
© Tamas Dobos

Shostakovich's Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor was composed post-war during a period of artistic oppression and censorship in the Soviet Union, so it was not premiered until 1955, after Stalin's death. The concerto paints a dark and pessimistic soundscape with dissonances and grim timbres. The first movement reflects the calm before the storm with slow, melancholic passages. The Scherzo begins with a folk style motif with a hint of carnival, almost a twisted danse macabre. The motif returns later on featuring a xylophone illustrating the rattle of the bones when Death calls. 

Kelemen, dressed dramatically in a black coat, used his mesmerizing touch to take the audience under his spell, a certain haunting quality in his playing capturing the essence of the piece. Thanks to his almost demonic interpretation it would not be surprising if they’d be telling the same Faustian story about him as they told about Niccolò Paganini 200 years earlier.          

After the interval, Kluxen stepped into the limelight for Carl Nielsen Fourth Symphony, subtitled the "Inextinguishable". The conductor walked nonchalantly to the stage and suddenly jumped onto the platform cueing the orchestra in for an extravagant tutti. He took non-stop attacca subito (“suddenly attacks”) between movements literally. Nielsen’s symphony features a large brass section and two sets of timpani, which engage in a duel in the final movement. During the period of composition, the First World War affected his work. Whereas Shostakovich’s concerto depicts pessimism and horror, Nielsen’s symphony illustrates the elemental will to live. In Kluxen's performance the dynamics were sometimes a little misplaced since the loud brass attacks covered other textures. 

At the end of the piece two sets of timpani battled together, pounding like artillery. The first drum beat a pattern and the second player answers. The piece culminated in a triumphant finale with the orchestra flourishing in its full glory. Since the piece was performed without a break between movements, the non-stop bombardment was an exhausting but empowering experience. 

All in all, this concert was very entertaining yet not as powerful as expected. Though the works were delivered with fine emotion and expertise, the concert was not as compelling as some of the past concerts this autumn. Nevertheless the concert was memorable enough to give us strength to last through the polar night. 

***11