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Youthful power: Violinist Arabella Steinbacher.

Sweetness and Steel
By B.A. Nilsson

London Philharmonic Orchestra

Proctor’s Theatre, March 21

Jaime Laredo and Leon Fleisher

Union College Memorial Chapel, March 23

Two magnificent violinists ap peared within two days of each other in Schenectady, in two significantly contrasting settings of music and hall. Young Arabella Steinbacher blazed through the dazzling Khachaturian concerto surrounded by a large orchestra and witnessed by some 2,000 concertgoers at Proctor’s; Jaime Laredo, a renowned artist with decades of performance credit, played the three autumnal Brahms sonatas in an emotionally riveting partnership with pianist Leon Fleisher in the more intimate setting of Union College’s Memorial Chapel.

Laredo played like honey, Steinbacher like steel; both knew how best to approach the works they’d chosen.

Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto is a big and brassy trifle, replete with modal characteristics springing not only from the composer’s Armenian heritage but also with a fascination for Oriental sounds that found its way into music by Borodin and Rimsky- Korsakoff, among others.

Written in 1940, its fast outer movements are busy—the concluding Rondo is a feast of pyrotechnics—while its middle, an Andante, displays the lyricism that has attracted Khachaturian’s ballet music to hip filmmakers.

Steinbacher’s bow arm is astonishingly versatile: She already has bested all of the big challenges. A supple legato is little challenge, yet she summons a creamy tone from frog to tip. When she sets it in more detached motion, for a staccato or bouncing spiccato, each note resounds clearly. And this concerto demands several long sequences of broken chords with a bouncing bow, which she articulated beautifully.

Otherwise, the piece is a lot of sound and fury, with a heart-on-the-sleeve sob story in its middle movement that needs to be played with the utmost conviction to avoid falling into parody. Perhaps, in that regard, it’s a young person’s work, and Steinbacher chose this vehicle well.

You can’t get more heart-on-the-sleeve than Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, a work that pushed him dangerously close to self-parody. Where the fourth is lyrical and fun, this one is all shades of gloom, like being trapped in a bar with a garrulous, self-pitying drunk.

Former BBC Philharmonic principal conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier stepped in to replace the ailing Kurt Masur, and brought a splendid dynamic range to the Tchaikovsky symphony. His tempos were a hair on the slow side, which, with a repetitious piece like this work, can keep you in your seat for several extra minutes, and I missed the subtleties of phrasing that add life to a work like this one. But the overall sound of the orchestra was glorious, helped by a generous set of acoustic clouds.

This symphony demands taxing work from woodwinds and brass, with extended passages for solo clarinet and solo horn. Never was a note out of place, and Tortelier singled out the soloists and their sections for well-deserved bows.

The enthusiastic audience, nervous about applause, applauded any time the music stopped or even paused (as at the Tchaikovsky symphony’s false ending). I’m all for spontaneous displays of enthusiasm, but sometimes the continuity of a piece is ruined by the outburst.

The first movement of Britten’s Simple Symphony, which opened the concert, was a little ragged, which I suspect was the result of trying to get the sound right in a large, almost-full hall, something you can’t achieve during a sound check; with the second movement, everything coalesced.

So the orchestra was primed and ready when Steinbacher took to the stage for her concerto. Khachaturian is not shy about answering a solo violin passage with a blast from the brass, and Tortelier saw to it that the violinist was never obscured and the work danced along with appropriate ferocity.

Ferocity is about the last term you’d apply to the three violin sonatas by Brahms. They are—especially the first two—quiet, meditative works that call for a skilled interplay between violin and piano.

Jaime Laredo is a virtuoso who is also one of the best chamber music artists on the scene, and is thus a generous collaborator. And to have Leon Fleisher as a partner is to have one of the shining lights of the keyboard, an artist whose career was derailed for decades by focal dystonia.

Laredo has a sweet tone. His slides up the strings reveal their motion with a small sob; his phrasing throbs with a momentous vibrato. Fleisher approaches the piano as if it’s a wild animal from which he needs to coax calmness; he studies the keys with an Alfred Brendel-like look of bemusement as he draws from them a richness of sound so ripe for Brahms. This was a perfect lesson in chamber music-making, a thrilling experience for this area.

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