Exciting, innovative programming sometimes comes at a price. Ranging in style from the chirpy Classical Symphony of Prokofiev through the visceral folk music of Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no. 2 to the bitter despair of Walton’s Symphony no. 1, these lesser-known works of last night's concert seemed to have frightened off a significant portion of the usual Friday night crowd. Their loss, as this proved to be a compelling performance of a highly original programme. And, if that wasn’t enough, it also featured a soloist who had all the magnetism of a rock-star – in short, all the ingredients necessary to make it one of the most enjoyable and intriguing concerts of the season so far.

Barnabás Kelemen © Tamas Dobos
Barnabás Kelemen
© Tamas Dobos
From the breezy opening Allegro of Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 1 in D major, visiting conductor Alexander Shelley proved to be a safe pair of hands, keeping a satisfyingly tight rein on the rhythm throughout. The witty lines of music went trippingly along, bouncing off accents and capturing the good-humoured cheer inherent in this work. All sections of the orchestra responded instantly to Shelley’s laconic and at times detached, though always pellucid style of conducting. In the third movement Gavotte, it was sufficient for a mere twitch of his baton to make the strings play up the ironic dance element while in the finale, the strict marshalling of the troops meant that the chasing contrapuntal lines between strings and woodwind bubbled with controlled excitement.

Blessed with a staggering virtuoso technique and a charismatic ability to communicate even the most complex music engagingly, Hungarian violinist, Barnabás Kelemen was the soloist in Szymanowski’s earthy Second Concerto. Dressed in a black frock coat and skinny trousers, Kelemen, like his fellow Hungarian Franz Liszt two centuries previously, oozed star appeal. It was not visuals alone that were striking: what impressed so much from the start was the tonal palette he demonstrated; the difference between the deep, rich voice of the G string sounded like a different instrument to the silken soaring lines he produced on the E string.

The music of this concerto belong to Szymanowski’s late period, a style that owes much to his visitations to the Tatra Mountains in Southern Poland where he absorbed the local, earthy, folk idioms. This through-composed, one-movement concerto is impetuous in its shifting moods and Kelemen attacked the visceral sections with a ferocity that was both raw and shocking. From his brusque movements, it was evident that he revelled in the urgency of the violent rhythms that propelled the music to the cadenza. This was little short of jaw-droppingly spectacular. Fiendishly difficult, abounding in double-stops and using the whole gamut of the instrument, Kelemen dispatched it with palpable energy and enjoyment. The NSO was energised by this performance, though never once did it overpower him. It was not all fireworks though and in the Andantino the diaphanous sounds evoked by Kelemen suited the distant mood.

Engaging in good-natured banter with the audience after the concerto, Kelemen treated us to two encores: Bach’s Sarabande which breathed freshness of vision and a jazzy arrangement from Piazzolla.

English composer William Walton was influential in hauling British music into the 20th century. Having garnished success early in his career as one of the vanguard composers, he promised Hamiliton Harty and the LSO to write a symphony. The trajectory of the symphony reflects the emotional and psychological state of Walton after his turbulent affair with Imma von Doernberg: from bitter gloom to intense anguish. Shelley’s vision for the music kept this trajectory firmly in mind, never allowing it to lose momentum even in the more reflective parts. The first movement opened with a quiet, menacing drum and before long the brass interjected with scorching bursts and strings responded with snarling dotted rhythms, bitter anguish sweeping through all sections.

The marking for the second movement is a chilling “presto con malizia” (fast and with malice – a musical first for such a tempo marking?) and it features explosions of timpani and cacophonous counterpoint with biting rhythms on violas. Shelley brought out the angular rhythms and acid interjections to great effect. I could have done with a slightly more forlorn flute solo which opens the third movement, the lyrical heart of the piece, though the remorse and the gnawing regret of the later sections were superbly evoked.

The fourth movement Maestoso was written a year after the first three movements and it is a world apart from the emotional bitterness of what precedes it. The NSO instantly captured this positivity, cheerily passing the fugue from viola to violins and then to cellos, while the rhythms, though complex, were dispatched in a more playful character. The final string tremelando was coruscating and a triumphant brass section brought this remarkable symphony to a satisfying conclusion. 

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