Conductor and soloist usually have a close relationship, but rarely are they the same person. Nikolaj Znaider demonstrated his musical prowess, taking to the stage as both soloist and conductor, commanding the London Symphony Orchestra. The title of the concert, ‘Fate Beckons’, welcomed the bold brass opening of the ‘fate motif’ in Tchaikovsky Symphony no. 4 in F minor, which bore no relationship to the two Mozart concertos alongside it. The classical era pairing with a large romantic work, reiterated the large sound of the symphony orchestra for the central focus of the night.

Nikolai Znaider © Lars Gundersen
Nikolai Znaider
© Lars Gundersen

The polished performances of the two Mozart concertos featured a different orchestral layout. As a nod to the Classical era period performance style, all of the violin and viola players stood, with the violas at the front right of the stage, and the cellos and double basses sat on a platform behind them. Although this was effective for projecting the sound of the strings and Znaider as soloist in the centre, the rest of the orchestra were almost entirely masked for both Mozart concertos and this resulted in their sound rather lost behind a wall of bodies.

Znaider, true to Mozartean style, avoided excessive vibrato and consciously provided a clean sound. Though realistic to the performance period, a few moments were lost to stronger vibrato playing by the orchestral violins, where a cleaner sound was not as strong over the top. Despite this, there were little themes in the Violin Concerto no. 4 in D major, K218 similar to those used later in his Clarinet Concerto, that were satisfying to grab hold of aurally and sang on the violin. Znaider grasped these moments too, reaching forward with his bow and truly taking the lead on stage, particularly in the Andante cantabile middle movement where small melody pockets were echoed around the orchestra. Znaider’s style was virtuosic and he demonstrated great capability and skill, producing a lovely rich tone in its lower range, which gave his playing warmth and a depth of flexibility. The bottom of descended arpeggios were effortlessly reached and glossy. The Adagio from the Concerto No. 1, echoing sentiments of Mozart’s operatic writing, was less playful.

Though great as a violinist, Znaider was exemplary as a conductor. The Tchaikovsky was his true triumph. He was more mobile when facing the orchestra, lighter on his feet and absorbing to watch. A more recent foray for him, he became a less static focal point, providing a source of power to send signals across the stage. He transformed the LSO, where physical display took command of making a truly absorbing second half of the evening. The pizzicato strings in the third movement and nostalgic little theme on the oboe were contrasted well with the huge symphonic sound of the first and final movements, each contrasting moment as riveting as the next to provide the highlight of the evening.

This symphonic performance had style, energy and was easily one of the best symphonies presented at the Bristol Classical Season. Tchaikovsky may have been on the verge of breakdown when writing this piece, but the brass fanfare at the beginning defies this in its strength, denying any weakness in the concert hall. Now sounding out over the strings, the brass levelled the field with deep sonority and guttural presence. One must not neglect the percussion section, an enormous entity in the Fourth Symphony and an outstanding performance. The powerful timpani teamed with trombones and exposed striking cymbal crashes played with stretched out limbs in the final minutes of the concert, created a memorable impact and a culmination of the orchestra in one big juicy chord.