power: Violinist Arabella Steinbacher.
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Theatre, March 21
Laredo and Leon Fleisher
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
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.