Bach wrote his Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor, BWV1041 at the very height of the genre’s popularity in Northern Europe. Revisionist scholarship has dated this work to his Leipzig period (1723 on) rather than, as had been previously thought, the earlier court period (1717-23), which means that it would have been composed with the cultivated middle-class public in mind, notably the enthused students in the Collegium Musicum performing entirely for pleasure. The fact that we possess this violin concerto at all is owing to happy accident; it was not one of the three concertos entrusted to his son Wilhelm that were carelessly mislaid, never to be recovered, but one entrusted to a less cavalier son, Carl.

Leonidas Kavakos © Marco Borggreve
Leonidas Kavakos
© Marco Borggreve

Tonight’s performance was a gracious homage to the mingling of stringed instruments, although it came across a little scrappy in places. Leonidas Kavakos was both conductor of the ensemble and solo violinist: his strength lay in eschewing any pretensions to a dominant solo role, which would be, in any case, wholly inappropriate and anachronistic. Instead, his violin was a partner voice, seamlessly integrating into the working out of the musical material. The second movement was a gracefully-rendered Andante, its lyricism recalling the opera of the period. Particularly attractive was the tone colour, with carefully-modulated swells and fadings of sound. In the third movement, the aristocratic gigue, there were a few occasions when the quality of sound was more disorderly than deft.

Premiered in Paris in 1893, Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande clearly struck a chord with the creative classes. Fauré, Debussy, Wallace and Schoenberg all weighed in, and so too did Jean Sibelius for a Finnish translation of the French original in 1905. The story’s allure – involving forbidden Eros and resultant Anteros (chaos) – for a generation worked up about exoticism, mystery and the dark gods of fated romance, was obvious. The titled sections in Sibelius’ suite are evocations of narrative scenes. This is mood music par excellence and I thought that Kavakos’ conducting drew the requisite mysterious grandeur from the orchestra. His long, flowing sinuous gestures mirrored the waves of sound he wished to create, waves which rose, crested and fell recurrently. There were moments for wallowing lushly in big brass, big percussion, heavily-bowed and darkly muted string sound: luxuriating in a kind of cavernous fortissimo which was both fitting and impressive. In a very different style but equally appropriately rendered was the eerie music, ushered in by the cor anglais, depicting the shadowy figure of Mélisande, lost and weeping in the forest of Allemonde. One didn’t need to be particularly sensitive to intonation to hear the brass go spectacularly off, unfortunately at a very exposed moment. I was, however, especially taken by the mastery over the micro-dynamics at both ends of the volume spectrum: the seizure of the distinction between mp, p, or pp and all the shades in between. Particularly touching was the respect for pauses in the score: Kavakos was brave enough to let them lengthen, long enough to make us feel the silence as a sound in itself; indeed as the last note died away on muted strings, he paused for quite 12 seconds before lowering his baton. At least poor fated Mélissande made a good stage death.

The final work on tonight’s programme was Maurice Ravel’s orchestration Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This is music explicitly celebrating fine art – the pictures in question are those of Mussorgsky’s friend Viktor Hartmann. Truth be told, the pictures were but fair; but the music is quite glorious and our love affair with Pictures has never stopped since. Ravel is always spoken of as the great orchestral colourist and the success of a rendition is to be measured by how well the instruments transmit a particular voice or character. Ponderous heavy brasses and percussion conjured forth “Gnomus” satisfactorily; the tuba projected the song of the peasant driving an oxen wagon, plenty cumbersome and lugubrious; the muted trumpet depicted the figure of the poor Jew begging money off his rich co-religionist (the trumpet not quite strident enough to capture the importune plea) and there were bows flailing and batons flying – a fine spectacle – in “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs”. The saxophone (deliciously ironically given its modern jazz associations by 1922) emitted the melancholy lay of a medieval troubadour before an ancient castle while “The Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells” was witty enough to elicit a delighted chuckle from the audience. The tempo lagged in the light-hearted “Tuileries”, and I prefer my “Market at Limoges” rather crazier and quicker. Still, all’s well that ends well and the long drawn-out finale of “The Great Gate of Kiev” was grand and wallowing in self-indulgence. Just as it should be really. 

***11