Nemanja Radulović has become known for his virtuoso violin playing but also for his cool appearance and strong stage presence, tossing his wild curly hair like a rock star. But when he played with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali, it was more than anything else a passion for storytelling, a will to communicate and a genuine love for music that came across from this expressive artist. He has said himself that storytelling drives him and it shows in the title of his last album Baika, which is the Serbian word for story. First on the album appears the concerto he played with the GSO this Saturday – Khachaturian’s Concerto for violin and orchestra in D minor.

Santtu-Matias Rouvali and Nemanja Radulović performing with the GSO © GSOPlay
Santtu-Matias Rouvali and Nemanja Radulović performing with the GSO
© GSOPlay

Radulović often turned towards the orchestra, his back to the audience, attentively listening to and enjoying the orchestra parts, or having visual communication with them while playing, most notably with the clarinettist, whose part often is in conversation with the solo violin. This slightly unorthodox way of using the stage did not come across as studied or rude towards the audience, but as genuine and sprung from a sincere will to connect and share music, both with us in the audience and with the other musicians on stage.

Visuals aside, this concert would have been completely enjoyable even with eyes closed and all of the above left out. Radulović’s playing was full of colour, gesture and spontaneous playfulness – such as in the very first entry of the solo violin, where he played percussively and with strong momentum; the same phrase came back not a minute later in a whole new colour, not as pushing but more laid back, as much as the tempo and amount of notes per bar would allow. He playfully and seemingly spontaneously challenged the GSO in his incredibly soft Subito pianissimos, but they were up to it and matched him, although usually after a brief moment of adjustment.

Before the concerto, the GSO warmed us up with Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite, consisting of five movements the composer wrote for the play Masquerade by Lermontov, a year after writing the concerto. In both these works we got to experience what a master of melodies Khachaturian was, with humming-friendly tunes in every movement, tastefully rendered by Rouvali despite the at times bombastic and over-the-top score. Especially the percussion section did a very commendable job in keeping the balance. The dance movements (“Waltz”, “Mazurka” and “Galop”) painted a picture of a busy ballroom, and the sentimental movements in between (“Nocturne” and “Romance”), felt like a couple of welcome trips out on the balcony for fresh air before returning to the party.

Sibelius wrote his fourth symphony at a challenging time, both personally and historically. Europe was, as it would turn out, heading towards a world war and Sibelius had just had a tumour removed, hence why mortality was more present in his thoughts. This could be why the fourth is so dark and ominous and doesn’t sound like the Sibelius that the public was used to hear at its premiere in 1911. The composer himself has stated that the symphony was “a protest against present-day music” and that it had “absolutely nothing of the circus about it”. One can wonder what he would have thought about pairing it up with Khachaturian’s catchy music, which can certainly be called, if not something of a circus, at least a show – although in the best sense of the word.

Undoubtedly, it was a giant leap in the programme from the first half to the second; the Sibelius fourth barely presents any melodies that could get stuck in your head on the way home. The main building block is the tritone, an interval which, used as Sibelius does – in its own right without extenuating surroundings – sounds almost harsh and not very melodic. Throughout history it has even been referred to as “the devil’s interval” and it appears continuously in the four movements of the symphony.

Although the complete switch might have been challenging for many members of the audience, myself included, it posed no challenge for Rouvali, who navigated this sparsely orchestrated and vulnerable music with great sensitivity. He managed to retain the tension through the silences between phrases and to keep the work together as a whole, wisely reserving the strongest dynamic for the climax of the third movement, thus making it the peak of the whole symphony.

Despite the delicate performance, the symphony was not given a proper chance because of the construction of the programme – the dazzling colours and fireworks of the first half made the second fade in comparison, causing it to be not as moving and profound as the very same performance could have been in another context.

This review is part of our student reviewers programme in collaboration with the Academy of Music & Drama of the University of Gothenburg.

Reviewed at Gothenburg Concert Hall, Gothenburg on 23 November 2019

PROGRAMME

Khachaturian, Masquerade: suite

Khachaturian, Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 46

Sibelius, Symphony no. 4 in A minor, Op.63

PERFORMERS

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

Santtu-Matias Rouvali, Conductor

Nemanja Radulović, Violin