Zemlinsky: Sinfonietta; Korngold: Violin Concerto; Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6

Royal Festival Hall, 14 November 2007 5 stars

LPO/Jurowski: RFH - MusicalCriticism.com concert review

Both the London Philharmonic Orchestra and their Principal Conductor Vladimir Jurowski were on top form for their somewhat unfamiliar programme on 14 November at the Royal Festival Hall. Although I cannot be sure, I suspect that a great many people in the audience might not have heard of Zemlinsky's Sinfonietta and even of Korngold's Violin Concerto before this concert. I also can't help but wonder how many of the orchestra's players were performing these compositions for the first time. At any event, the focus and concentration of all the participants created tension, excitement and beauty during the whole evening.

It is well known - and was repeated in the programme notes for the concert - that Zemlinsky's music was banned under the Nazi rule in Austria. Nevertheless, popular success eluded the composer even before the tragic political circumstances. Indeed, in 1934 Zemlinsky composed his Sinfonietta, Op. 23 after Hans Heinsheimer of Universal Edition suggested that a purely orchestral work might help to promote the composer. The same thought process might have inspired conductor Mitropoulos to broadcast the Sinfonietta nationwide in the USA towards the end of Zemlinsky's life.

When performed with such commitment and skill as on this occasion by Jurowski and the LPO, one wonders why the piece has not made it into the regular symphonic repertoire. Surely its three-movement structure and its length of about twenty minutes could easily fit into standard orchestral concerts. In the second movement, Ballade, there are a few tricky clarinet solos which were delivered masterly by Robert Hill.

I looked in vain for the score of Korngold's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D, Op. 35 in the major London music libraries: none held music scores of this tuneful composition. The programme notes tell us that the score is 'littered with quotations from Korngold's movie scores'. I know neither the movies nor their scores but I assume that Korngold knew Bartók's Second Violin Concerto: the opening themes of the two concertos are strikingly similar. Korngold places the solo violin firmly in the foreground, even though dialogues are apparent between soloist and the orchestra. For the performance of this concerto Jurowski reduced the LPO string section to almost half its size, thus fully facilitating the violin's domineering function. As the role of the solo violin seems to be similar to that of an opera singer, 'violin aria' were the words which came to my mind several times. However, the virtuoso cadenza at the end of the first movement and the virtuosity demanded from the solo violin in the third movement are exclusively instrumental.

LPO/Jurowski: RFH - MusicalCriticism.com concert review

Although Nikolaj Znaider played from music, he clearly knows the score and is in full control of its musical and technical demands. For me another star of this concert was the violin Znaider played: the Kreisler Guarnerius 'del Gesu', a magnificent instrument from among the greatest violins.

Full orchestral forces participated in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6 in B minor, a world apart from Korngold's tuneful violin concerto. Jurowski's guidance was illuminating, whether in the dark mood of the first movement, in the humour and chamber music quality of the second movement or in the wild drive of the third movement. The players of the LPO shone individually as well as in their ensembles. Mention must be made of the cor anglais (Sue Bohling), flute (Celia Chambers) and bass clarinet (Paul Richards) solos in the first movement, the spiccato violin ensembles, the particularly strong double bass ensemble march, the bassoon solo (John Price) and the violin solo (Boris Garlitsky) in the third movement.

Full marks for the unusual programme and its masterly interpretation.

By Agnes Kory

Read recent concert reviews, including a recital by Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Wagner Rarities at the Royal Opera House, here.